It’s big news in Australia that apparently Tom Hiddleston is here filming the eleventy billionth Marvel film, Thor: Ragnarok. Although, I’m wishing it was just Ragnarok.
In a not completely unrelated event, I finally got around to watching the luscious looking but ultimately ultra-Freudian Gothic-by-numbers Crimson Peak. It’s a bit like Phantom of the Opera, without the music and theatre. Hiddleston as the landed gentry Thomas Sharpe is the sad Phantom and his sister Lucille is the shrieking sidelined Carlotta. His love interest, the American heiress Edith Cushing, is Christine, and her doting friend, Charlie Hunnam, as Dr Alan McMichael, is under utilised as a Raoul type.
Then again, there’s no bit of this plot anyone with even a cursory familiarity with literature or film won’t recognise. For starters there’s the entirely predictable ‘like her writing and get the girl’ courtship that felt too Little Women, to the madwoman in the attic subplot, and the Bluebeard plot, to the bloody, but redemptive finale. It even features the typical hardworking American businessman vs the sickly, money grabbing English lord trope. Basically, I’m slightly disappointed it was all about mining blood-red clay and not attempting to Frankenstein English golems from it.
All this and it’s not a terrible film. Just because the plot is a pastiche, doesn’t make it bad. Jessica Chastain was at her icy and calculating best as a suspicious Lucille Sharpe. Alice in Wonderland’s Mia Wasikowska was again lost in a warped world, but at least she had character development. Her arc was from innocent stay at home dutiful daughter to something else more survivalist, in a similar vein to say Bruce Willis in Die Hard, except all in a nightie in the snow. Meanwhile, Hiddleston was at pains to balance the pathos of poor Thomas-in-love with the demands of his sister. Of them all, I wanted more from Hiddleston’s Baronet: more duplicitous-ness, but also more demonstrably torn between his burgeoning love for Edith and his, ahem, household demands. He was too stable throughout, while Lucille became too Bertha from Jane Eyre.
I take issue with the ghosts, or at least some of them. If some are trying to warn Edith away, why scare her so much? It’s easier to get the message across if people aren’t running away from the horror of your existence. I wanted more made of them and the cut scene of Edith’s book about ghosts back in. I also wanted it to be scarier.
To look at, this film is pure Guillermo, so it’s gorgeous from the costumes to the curios. The main set is much like a theatre production, so there is a central stage, which happens to pierced by a weakness in the ground and an open roof, so a shaft of light illuminates the gloom and some of the set-piece scenes. Symbolically speaking Gaston Bachelard* would be proud. The crumbling mansion of Adderley represents a conduit from below (hell/the other world/ignorance) to above (heaven/freedom/knowledge), and thus sums up the mansion nicely. Of course, it is both at the top of a mountain and the entrance to a mine, so it is a doorway between worlds: between rational steam punk ingenuity and Gothic nightmare, between sanity and madness, life and death, licit love and illicit obsession, light and dark..etc..because mountains = heaven and caves/mines = under world. It is also apt Chastain hides stuff down there related to her mother. Caves, as we know from French feminists are the womb/tomb of the goddess/mother who is also exiled. Literally and figuratively this time.
So yeah, there is a lot to read into films like this, precisely because they are not unique. Gotta love intertextuality. But equally, you can sit back and just go with it. That’s perfectly fine too for people not like me:)
*I recommend the Poetics of Space if you are into reading meaning from architecture.