The Gothic Revival of Crimson Peak


Crimson Peak is a 2015 film written by Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins, directed by del Toro, and starring Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, and Tom Hiddleston. Although this film is visually stunning, in fact having won and been nominated for dozens of visual effect, costume, and set design awards, as a novelist, I will primarily being focusing on the film’s use of characterization and symbolism. These are areas where the film also excels, and often where they are intrinsically linked to one another.

The film tells the story of Edith Cushing, who in Buffalo, NY, at the turn of the twentieth century makes the fateful acquaintance of Sir Thomas Sharpe and his sister Lucille. After her father’s untimely death, Edith marries Thomas and accompanies him to his home in the north of England, a barren and crumbling manor house called Allerdale Hall. The estate was once known for mining an iron rich clay, but without funds, the mining operations have been all but abandoned. During Edith’s stay, she uncovers the secrets of the house, thanks to the help of some grotesque yet well meaning ghosts. Not only have Thomas and Lucille carried on an incestuous relationship, but there have been three previous Mrs. Sharpes, each of whom were wed and later murdered for their money.

The first main character to be introduced is Edith. The film is shown in third person limited, with the camera typically following only Edith’s actions. Edith does not grow or expand in depth very much as the film progresses. Things happen to and around her, but we as an audience don’t get an overwhelming sense of her as person beyond her immediate emotions. She does, however, foretell her own story’s end when, in reply to a social acquaintance who refers to her as “our very own Jane Austen. She died a spinster, did she not?” Edith replies, “I would prefer to be Mary Shelley. She died a widow.” The foreshadowing is a bit heavy-handed, but not out of character.

Lucille Sharpe serves as a stark contrast to Edith. Visually, she is dark and elegant, where Edith is bright and cheerful. As a character, she is rich and complex, with layers that the audience gets to explore, not unlike the dizzying layout of the manor house. She is also cruel. Lucille Sharpe is an excellent example of a villain who is easy to hate, yet maintains that tantalizing spark of humanity. Speaking of her experience playing the eldest Sharpe, Jessica Chastain said, “With Lucille, she’s not cackling and curling her lip. Everything comes from her pain and her absolute loneliness.” Personally, those villains are among the hardest for me to write, for I inevitably begin to feel compassion for them and yearn to redeem them.

Yet Lucille is clearly beyond redemption. She is morbid, keeping souvenirs from past victims, and she is disgusting, singing lullabies to her brother as she seduces him in their old nursery. She maintains her viciousness (the final fight scene is splashed with blood and knife wounds) yet speaks of her emotional conflict throughout the film. Speaking to Edith, Lucille says, “The things we do for a love like this are ugly. Mad. Full of sweat and regret. This love burns you and maims you and twists you inside out. It is a monstrous love, and it makes monsters of us all.”

Her twisted love is directed at Thomas Sharpe. Just as Lucille is an excellent example of a female abuser, Thomas is a rare specimen of the male sexual abuse victim. Lucille keeps him isolated at the Hall, where her authority is reinforced with the ring of keys she keeps on her hip. Tom Hiddleston has said of his character, “He was actually someone who had a lot of private pain…he’s so guilty about so much. What you see is charm, behind that is guilt, and behind that is vulnerability.” Like a classic abuse victim, Thomas has learned to replicate normality in public places, but at home, he becomes nervous, wringing his hands, and avoiding eye contact with either Edith or Lucille.

In veiled comments to Edith, before their marriage, he tells her, “I’ve always closed my eyes to things that make me uncomfortable. It makes everything easier….Perfection has no place in love.” Though he has learned to close his eyes to Lucille’s crimes (she tells him “I would be taken. You would be hanged.”) he cannot lower himself to her level. When asked to kill even a small dog, he simply takes it to the edge of the town and lets it go. Lucille will later slit the throat of the same dog, showing the contrast between the two, and the way that the same upbringing or circumstances can shape two entirely different characters.

Each character is symbolised throughout the film by a particular colour or colour palette. Edith wears yellows and golds, a reflection of her warmth and the hope she brings into Thomas’ life. Lucille dresses in blacks and dark blues. In a DVD commentary, del Toro explains that the choices for Lucille’s costumes allowed her to nearly blend into her surroundings at Allerdale Hall, adding to her comfort and authority in that setting. Thomas dresses exclusively in blacks, however when he returns as a ghost at the end he is swathed in pale yellow, a nod to Edith’s colours.

As a writer, I typically assign a colour scheme to each of my characters as part of their initial descriptions. That colour may not necessarily be their favourite or become part of their wardrobe, but it is associated with them because of mood or tone. In my current work, the main character is associated with the colour violet due to it’s soft, feminine, and sometimes mystic qualities. In her wardrobe, she sometimes supplements this palette with greens as tokens of her lover who has been assigned that colour as a representation of life and male virility.

Further symbolism in the film included an extended butterfly/moth comparison which represented the distinction between Edith and Lucille. Lucille may as well have been describing herself when she told Edith, “At home we have only black moths…they thrive on the dark and the cold. [They feed on] butterflies I’m afraid.” Nature themes such as this translate easily to the page of fiction, or even poetry. In my own myth-centric works, I often harken back to male and female related symbols in particular, such as the stag and the moon.

 The movie’s plot has a few minor inconsistencies that keep it from being the perfect piece of cinema that had the potential to be. However, stylistically, in the realms of character, symbolism, and even dialogue, which I simply did not have the depth to analyse to a full extent here, it was a stellar work. The protagonist, by not being the most emotionally complex character, gave room for the others to grow and reveal themselves. The use of symbols was varied and their repetition allowed certain patterns to emerge that added depth and realism to the characters. This was stunningly achieved on film, but could be easily replicated not only through descriptive passages, but extended metaphor or repeated imagery. The relationship between the characters also pushed boundaries, with the role of abuser being taken on by a female character. It is a fine line to walk, but I think the effect was achieved here flawlessly. I would heartily recommend this film to any fiction writer.

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