Mysterious figure: Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) enjoy their “Cinderella moment” in Crimson Peak. Photo: Kerry Hayes
Filmmaker Guillermo del Toro says he has always had an easier time writing female characters. And in Crimson Peak, his enveloping, lush, gorgeously layered and unsettling Gothic romance, he has given us some particularly memorable ones. His filmmaker friend Alfonso Cuaron said to him jokingly “Guillermo, in Crimson Peak, you are unleashing your bookish inner girl.”
Del Toro’s heroine – who moves from a sheltered position in American society to dangerous isolation in a haunted house in England – is called Edith Cushing. She’s comfortably off, she’s the daughter of an adoring father, but she’s not an entirely conventional figure. She is writing a book – “not a ghost story but a story with a ghost in it” – and she saw her first ghost at the age of 10.
Guillermo del Toro, director of Crimson Peak
Her name represents what del Toro happily calls “my highbrow and lowbrow combined” and encapsulates what Crimson Peak is all about. She’s Edith for Edith Wharton, author of The Age of Innocence and House of Mirth, novels that evoke the kind of social world we see in the first part of the movie. And she’s Cushing for Peter Cushing, the English star of Hammerhorror movies.
The fortunes of Edith (Mia Wasikowska) take an abrupt turn when she meets Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), an impoverished English baronet who has come to America to look for investors in a mining machine he has invented. He travels with his sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), an accomplished, mysterious figure who seems to hover protectively over him. At first, Edith is disdainful of the attention everyone lavishes on the handsome aristocrat, but even she can’t resist him for long.
Crimson Peak is set in 1901, a time that has very specific implications for del Toro. “What I think that is beautiful about that period is how people are trying to articulate modernity,” he says. He has filled the movie with examples of new technology: photography, wax cylinder audio recordings, phonographs, which play roles of various kinds in the narrative. And several of his characters are seeking progress, trying to master the new and shake off the burden of their inheritance.
“Henry James said that in Gothic romance, the ghosts represent the past, they are the only impediments to us moving into the future,” del Toro says. “So I wanted to go to a period in which you have a girl who lives in a modern place but sees ghosts, which is a very atavistic, ancient thing. And on the other hand, you have a guy, Thomas, who lives in an ancient world, but can see the future. He wants machines. So these two outcasts meet, and fall in love, in the oddest of circumstances. The movie is very much about conquering the past.”
At one point, Benedict Cumberbatch was going to play Thomas, and Emma Stonewas in the frame for Edith. Casting Hiddleston and Wasikowska meant that the screenplay needed some tweaks, de Toro says. When Cumberbatch was attached, Thomas “was a much more aloof and calculating character. But I thought Tom brought an enormous vulnerability. You cannot help but love him.” And early version of Edith was “a very American girl, almost a little crass. Like in Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost, one of these those brash Americans. When Mia joined us, I made her more bookish, a little more introspective and quiet, less sure of herself. They are little adjustments but they make a big difference.”
Del Toro wanted to embrace the Gothic, but also challenge some of its stereotypes. “I made the decision, early on, to make the male figures in the movie useless to some degree. I really pursued that because I wanted the damsel in distress to stop being in distress and start fending for herself.”
He also wanted to break the tradition that “a lot depends on the virginal nature of the heroine. Often they are almost prudes, they are very chaste. I wanted to make a scene in the movie where sex was actually liberating” – for the male as well as the female character. But before that highly charged encounter, he says, there’s an earlier scene, which is “also a sex scene in my mind”, even though it takes place in the most formal and public of contexts – at a society ball, where Thomas and Edith dance together. It’s a sequence he prizes for all sorts of reasons. “if I had to say the movie is made of beauty and horror, that’s my favourite beauty moment.”
He films it lovingly and gracefully, and we have no doubt about its significance. “The way I planned that sequence was to really, really chronicle every time they touched. There are loving camera moves and sweeping dollies when he touches her shoulder, when he touches her hand, when she touches his back: I detailed, with one shot per touch, because the waltz was a very sensual dance, really overt.”
The sequence operates, he says, on several levels. It created a “Cinderella moment”, in which the prince singled out the less favoured girl, in front of everyone. And in doing this, several other stories were set in train: Edith’s well-meaning father, and one of her childhood friends get caught up in “a jealousy story. And for the first time you realise Lucille has some sort of strange menacing presence in the life of Thomas.”
The waltz also performs a useful narrative function, he adds. “I couldn’t do a 50-minute romance and then start the haunted house, I needed to get America over by the thirtieth minute. So I condense all the dating and romance and courtship into a single scene.”
Getting to the house – Allerdale Hall, in Cumberland, where Thomas and Lucille live, surrounded by family portraits and dark secrets – happens reasonably quickly in the movie. But it took a long time for del Toro himself to get the vast, crumbling three-storey mansion built the way that he wanted.
“I made a very early decision, and it delayed the movie for about eight years, but I knew I wanted to build that house physically. I didn’t want it to be digital. I wanted very much to make the movie feel hand-made. And the house is a personification of a mental state, of the decay that is in the lineage of that family. I wanted to make that house not sentient, but very much symbolic of that mind, and connected to Lucille. Every time Lucille gets tense, the house breathes. When she gets agitated, the house breathes more. There are all those ancestors watching over them. I tried to shape the windows in the house like eyes, round windows.”
Crimson Peak recalls many cinematic haunted houses – and when you see Lucille jealously guarding the keys to Allerdale Hall, there’s an immediate connection with the figure of Mrs Danvers, played by Judith Anderson, the quietly menacing housekeeper in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca. “Lucille is Mrs Danvers in a big way,” says del Toro. For him, Hitchcock’s film is all about the housekeeper and the house. “She is the movie.”
Chastain brings a forceful, intense quality to the role of Lucille. “She completely committed to it,” del Toro recalls. “I remember when we were starting to do the movie she said, what can you tell me about her that I can use? And I said to her, she never blinks. She has this sort of insect-like stare.” Insects, moths and butterflies, are important symbols and figures in the film, closely associated with the female characters. Del Toro told Chastain, “Your wardrobe is going to be like the cocoon of a butterfly, we will wrap you really tight, and then at the end, when you become who you are, we will give you a wardrobe that opens like butterfly wings.” And Chastain took his note about Lucille’s gaze very seriously, he says. “If you watch the movie very carefully, she only blinks three times.”
Crimson Peak opens on October 16.