Friday Fiction Feature: Crimson Peak


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On this Friday before Halloween we thought it appropriate to highlight a work of Gothic romance: the recently-released Crimson Peak by filmmaker Guillermo del Toro. Once again we bring you a review conversation between book review editor Anna Clutterbuck-Cook and reviewer Hanna Clutterbuck-Cook.

Anna: Okay, so let’s start with some non-spoilery observations. When you’ve been talking to friends interested in this movie, what are some of the “If you liked…then you should absolutely see this film” you’ve compared Crimson Peak to? I told one colleague it was “something like The Turn of the Screw meets Angels & Insects with a touch of Lovecraft.

Hanna:Uh — other — good movies? If you like del Toro, you should see this, no question. *Don’t* see it if you’re not  into Gothic or at least willing to unhitch your brain a little from Hollywoodized expectation because otherwise you may end up saying stupid things about how it ‘doesn’t make sense’ (not true!) and looking a moron.

Anna: Yeah, we’ve talked a lot in the past ten days about ‘what was up’ with all the reviews that thought the story didn’t make sense. (?) It was an incredibly tight Gothic script — heir to Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights (only with more sense), Northanger Abbey, Dracula … and I’d also make a strong argument that like Jane Eyre the core narrative is Edith’s self-realization as an adult person — coming into her own adulthood and finding her voice (er, and other strengths).

Hanna: Castle of Otranto and Mysteries of Udolpho, too. About the only thing it didn’t directly reference was The Monk. Everything else was there pretty much. And then you can just go on listing all the horror movie references which are kind of endless because that’s how del Toro rolls.

Anna: It definitely gestured back toward del Toro’s canon, although it skittered away from the more fatalistic endings, I thought. It’s unfair probably to say, “This wasn’t Pan’s Labyrinth” because nothing can be but it wasn’t that … hard? cruel? I say this even though I’d argue Pan’s is also ultimately hopeful in the sense of human beings choosing to be courageous in the face of overwhelming cruelty. This wasn’t quite that. Although Edith (Mia Wasikowska) is required to draw on her inner resources, to find the strength of character we know as viewers she’s had all along.

Without giving too much away, we can also talk a little about the three main characters and the (rather spare!) supporting cast … what did we think about the troupe of players?

Hanna: Nothing is as cruel as Labyrinth. This wasn’t meant to be — Gothic isn’t harsh like that; only realism is. I can’t help thinking it would’ve been stronger if they’d recast Jessica Chastain. I’ve never been a fan of hers. This is about as good as I’ve seen her be but if she could’ve stepped up her game a tad, it would have been incredible instead of merely quite amazing. I’m not sure who I’d replace her with, though, so there’s that. Possibly Carey Mulligan. But I’d replace almost everyone with her so I’m not sure it counts. Mia Wasikowska was incredibly strong, much better than I expected. And Tom Hiddleston effaced himself quite nicely without making a huge show of it.

Anna: I can’t recall seeing Chastain in anything before this, so I went in with no real expectation either way for her character. I appreciated that she didn’t overdramatize the part, which could have easily been a problem. You felt something was off, obviously, but she built to a crescendo at a pace that worked well in the overall story arc (I thought the pacing of the narrative, overall, was pretty strong).

People have compared Wasikowska’s role in this to her turn as Jane Eyre, which makes sense given the genre, but I actually found myself thinking more strongly of her portrayal of Alice? Something about the look in her eye (spoiler!) when she realized she’d battled her way through to survival. Hiddleston, I feel, figured out that his task — harder than it looks! — was to play Thomas in such a way as to make him present (and desired by Edith) yet rarely an agent of action. He’s almost entirely a conduit of the narrative from beginning to end.

[Mild spoilers after the jump]

Hanna: Well, and I might be judging unfairly. Lucille (Chastain) was completely off the deep end and it’s hard to play that with any kind of restraint. She did pretty well not giving the game away from the start given that Lucille has clearly learned to ‘pass.’ (Bar, of course, the Trunk of Knowledge.)

Edith is also telling the story right from the straight from the start with no self-doubt and no hedging: This is what happened to me. If you don’t believe it, fine, but that’s not my problem because I saw it and I know it’s true. I still say the key thing about the opening and closing shots is her calming herself back down — as you say, the realization that she’s won and can go on to the next thing. She’s not the final girl who wins and collapses — effective as that can be. She’s the final girl who realizes she’s won.

It’s interesting to watch Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston) fade out of the story as the movie goes on — he really is like the vampire with no reflection. He comes in with a wallop at the beginning to grab Edith’s attention and then, although he’s there more and more, he’s less and less important until you hit somewhere around the night they spend away from the Hall in England, and he’s not important at all. From there on, it’s all Edith and Lucille and mostly Edith.

Anna: Hah! Yes, the provocatively-placed Never Go In The Basement Now Dearie trunk. Aja Romano called it the Plot Exposition Trunk a few days ago on Twitter and I thought that was apt.

Actually, one of the visual/narrative aspects of the story I’d be interested to hear your take on is the role of science and technology? There’s the scene early on when our secondary love interest Alan the Opthamologist shows Edith the spirit slides? And then of course Thomas’ machine to extract the clay out of the ground at his his family’s estate — that becomes a central set piece in the final scene. And Lucille’s fascination with insects and her collection boxes. And the wax cylinder recordings that reveal the Nefarious Plot. What’s going on with these moments?

Hanna: I’m not sure about Alan and the slides. I mean, it’s all about sight and less about seeing ghosts and more about Edith having a very strong faith in what she sees. She’s not about to be talked or laughed out of it until she gets or finds an explanation. She’s not looking to be soothed out of it: “Oh, dear, you were so upset — this sort of thing happens–” and given a cup of tea and sent to bed. She wants to know the answer. Which is clearly something that attracts Alan. And then he can find scientific/medical grounding for the injury being done to Edith by the Sharpes. But I’m not sure about the spirit photographs. Or Thomas’ machine. It’s obviously a non-machine — I mean, it barely works and it does nothing.

The whole house and estate are like that: that’s why I keep coming back to Thomas and Lucille being children. They’re not functioning adults. You can see it in Thomas showing Edith around the house when they first arrive. She’s like, “Uh, hon…there are leaves. Coming through the roof. Right now.” and he’s all, “Yeah, it’s a bit rough but it’s always like that!” Like a kid showing off a playhouse. It’s the sort of environment children would adapt to and find normal but an adult would not and neither Thomas nor Lucille have ever really become adult.

The wax cylinder recordings and accompanying photographs I actually thought were kind of a funny take-off of the current fad in found footage — they’re the nineteenth-century equivalent, right? They’re the voices and pictures of the previous victims all telling their stories.

Anna: You make an excellent point about the Sharpe siblings being essentially non-adults. Not exactly “childlike” — they’re not the innocent children of romantic literature — but non->functional. They gesture toward the darker side of faerie in which illusion is the plane of existence within which the fae thrive. Not just spinning it to fool humans but such that they cannot see and are uninterested in the rot that exists betwixt and between the illusion? I’m thinking of characters like the Man with the Thistledown Hair in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell who isn’t cognizant of (and would not be capable of caring about if he were) the damage he causes.

I keep coming back to how…uncompromising this film is in presenting us with a heroine whose clear-eyed certainty in her ability to handle the situations she is presented with is only rarely shaken. She has moments, of course: when Thomas pretends to reject her by trashing her writing (the core of her independent selfhood), viewing her father’s body at the morgue, when she realizes she’s being poisoned. But after decompensating fairly efficiently she always returns to steely resolution and action. She never really stops moving forward, trying for survival. And I keep coming back to how radical that is for a heroine in pretty much any genre.

I also think it’s pretty notable that, reading this narrative as a coming-of-age tale, that Edith’s journey to adulthood begins with rather than ends with a marriage. I’m still turning this one over in my head, but it’s like if Jane Eyre began with Jane and Rochester marrying … and then Jane discovered Bertha in the attic, burned the whole manor down, and walked away without looking back. That’s not a perfect analogy, but — I keep thinking how powerful the first and last images in the film are, of Edith standing triumphantly, and alone.

Hanna: And I don’t know how we come up with a better closing line than that one. Since del Toro went to great lengths to make sure it was the image we remember, why not leave it there. Short version: Crimson Peak. Go see it. You can thank us later.

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