Crimson Peak (2015)

★★★★

Crimson Peak PosterDirector: Guillermo del Toro

Release Date: October 16th, 2015 (UK & US)

Genre: Drama; Fantasy; Horror

Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain

The fact that Guillermo del Toro’s latest offering is a carnival of visual ebullience probably won’t come as a shock to anybody out there. A 19th century Gothic nightmare with lots of frothy verbiage, every last word enunciated to the nth degree, Crimson Peak delivers in most of the areas we would expect but not all of the areas we would like. Granted, this is not a horror movie nor does it try to be anything of the sort, but its fleeting moments of fright never quite amount to the haunted atmosphere del Toro covets. The narrative also takes some time to explode into life, eventually doing so with menace. At least until then we have a bedazzling aesthetic to keep us company.

Mia Wasikowska plays Edith Cushing, a young woman who seeks to carve her own way in the world without relying on her father’s (Jim Beaver) wealth. She writes (stories with ghosts, not ghost stories), though Edith’s professional hopes are initially dashed under the guise of superfluous reasoning when a superior decries her “feminine handwriting” and the lack of romance in her tale. Crafty and stubborn, she swaps pen strokes for typing but remains steadfast on narrative content. Matthew Robbins co-wrote the film with del Toro and, in Edith, the pair have concocted a female character whose determination to evade tradition is at odds with the prevailing social structure.

She meets Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) when the latter shows up looking for funds to support his clay processing invention, and the duo fall in love. From dad to would-be muse Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), everybody is wary of Thomas’ intentions: “There’s something about him that I don’t like”. Everybody except Edith, who really should have taken the hint upon seeing Thomas converse with his mischievous sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) in the shadow beneath a large, looming tree.

Crimson Peak’s technical prowess is there for all to see, its rich texture and engrossing visuality arguably on a par with del Toro’s masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth. But it lacks that film’s beating heart, perhaps because it is tougher to empathise with Edith here than it was Ofelia there. Pinpointing exactly why the Edith’s plight doesn’t translate as well is difficult; Wasikowska is perfectly fine in the role and her character is not disagreeably construed. It is true that her words are often quite gushy, certainly more so than those spoken by Lucille, and at best on a par with Thomas’ dialogue.

The film isn’t excessively melodramatic but its swirling air of grandiosity can hinder the credibility of characters’ actions — from where, for instance, is Edith’s insurmountable trust in Thomas born? To align grand romantic gestures and sap-filled exchanges with Gothic fiction would be a fair assessment, though I’d argue the genre itself is in that case flawed. Or, at the very least, the aforementioned traits don’t meet the screen with enough grounded authenticity in Crimson Peak, and definitely don’t fit a character who is trying to break free from cultural the norm.

Edith’s mother appears in ghost form, an apparition cut from the same ocular cloth as the spectre in another Jessica Chastain outing, Mama. Chastain has more to sink her teeth into here; as Lucille she is very mysterious, her movements icy and her stare searing. She often dawns extravagant gowns but unlike the bright, undiluted garments worn by her sister-in-law, Lucille’s attire often reflects her dark interior (deep rose-coloured and sharply defined). Her undulating poise sets a tone of torment and, as it transpires, Chastain is a terrific passive-aggressive tormentor. But Lucille is also on the verge of mental collapse — her composure, fake, could come unstuck at any moment.

Tom Hiddleston is also very good, though his role commands a different shade of mystery. He must be both a schemer and a sympathiser, and the actor finds the correct balance between the two. You feel his conflicted plight, yet you still can’t fully trust his crow-esque demeanour. In a sense the film is crying out for more interactions between the siblings, especially during its less compelling first half. A word too for Burn Gorman who is superbly cast as a sly detective of sorts, slinking around in the much the same vein as Metropolis’ Thin Man.

At times del Toro’s film is exceptionally violent. One bathroom-set murder harkens back to Casino Royale’s pre-title brawl, only this one is much blunter and probably much bloodier too. It is part of an effervescent production design that somehow straddles the line between realistic and dreamlike: marvellously crafted sets, eye-catching costumes, piercing sounds (just wait for Lucille’s ceramic-screeching monologue).

Enshrouded in a bleak snowy mist, Allerdale Hall — the mansion that hosts proceedings — could pass for a miniature Voldemort-led Hogwarts. Dan Laustsen’s camera swoops around torn halls and through once-noble doorways as if flaunting the Titanic. When it comes to housing, del Toro is decorative master and he incites every moan, groan, and grumble from Allerdale Hall as possible. Blood red clay seeps from floorboards and bleeds down the walls in Evil Dead II fashion; it’s as if the building is literally sinking into hell.

Crimson Peak benefits from the process of time, with each passing second coaxing greater momentum and a rise in intrigue level, until the film reaches its barnstormingly gory finale. But it also benefits from boasting a cast who collectively prescribe to the mood of the piece, and a director who knows this genre — his genre — better than most.

Crimson Peak - Tom Hiddleston & Mia Wasikowska

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures

Metropolis (1927)

★★★★★

Metropolis PosterDirector: Fritz Lang

Release Date: March 13th, 1927 (US)

Genre: Drama; Science fiction

Starring: Gustav Fröhlich, Brigitte Helm, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Alfred Abel

Lost for 80 years until its miraculous 2008 rediscovery in an Argentinian museum, Fritz Lang’s original version of Metropolis astonishes in both its visionary aesthetic and also its societal relevance almost a century after release. The film’s opening montage depicts brassy, metallic equipment chinking away as steam spurts out without prejudice, and it is clear from the off — the machines have taken over. Workers solemnly shuffle in and out of tunnels for their latest totalitarian inspired shift, shoulders hunched, heads drooped. “Deep below the surface lay the workers’ city,” a cue card informs us.

The ‘Club of the Sons’ lies above, hosting libraries and lecture halls and lush gardens. Inhabitants all wear bright, expensive garments that haven’t been dirtied by the plumes of ash below. They scurry around dazzling water fountains seemingly oblivious to burden, their nonchalance heightened by the fact that those doing all the hard graft underneath probably don’t see much in the way of H2O replenishment. Lang is introducing us to a clear class order, where those on the lower end of the scale are compelled to fund their loftier counterparts’ serene lifestyle.

The first literal clash of class occurs shortly thereafter: worn, muddled children seemingly escape into the land of luxury, leaving the socialites frozen in anger. Or perhaps it is fear. All except Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), offspring of the Master of Metropolis Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) — the latter resides in the even grander Tower of Babel, one of many religious references laced throughout. The film primarily follows Freder as he goes in search of Maria (Brigitte Helm), a young Mother Teresa-esque figure from the workers’ city.

He ventures into a world of capitalist mechanisation where everything is procedural and methodological, and where a single deviation from structure entails disaster; we see men fall, likely tragically, after a large machine providing power to the city above malfunctions. It is here that Freder realises these labourers are essentially slaves to the system, and that his father is complicit in promoting their hardships. “What if one day those in the depths rise up against you?” says son despondently to father as the film not-so-subtly anticipates events to come.

From the beginning, it is made apparent that our protagonist considers all humans to be his brothers and sisters. It could come across as forced characterisation, but Gustav Fröhlich subsequently spends two hours justifying his persona’s caring mentality through empathetic expression. Freder’s not the only aristocrat with a conscience; we also have Joh’s trusty-cum-not-so-trusty assistant Josaphat (Theodor Loos), whose job security anxieties capture in a nutshell the power his boss has over the city.

Joh’s other sidekick — you could say he is the devil to Josaphat’s angel — is known only as The Thin Man (Fritz Rasp): a slender-faced and baggy-eyed detective who is tasked with stalking Freder. He is pre-transformation Nosferatu. There is also Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), an Einstein-like inventor who dwells in a Gothic house that looks distinctly out of place amongst the grandeur of Metropolis. At one point Rotwang ambles maniacally towards the camera, his outstretched arms poised to grapple. Werner Herzog would employ a similarly eerie shot in his interpretation of Nosferatu the Vampyre years later in 1979.

Towing frazzled hair and a forlorn gaze, the scientist reckons he can bring back his deceased ex-wife (Joh’s eventual partner and Freder’s mother) in machine form. The film plunders this intersection between life, currency and machinery for all it is worth, decrying the amalgamation of prosperity and power as something that’ll almost certainly lead to immorality. Rotwang claims nobody will be able to tell the difference between man and his Machine-Man creation. But the workers, the people, are already powerless machines.

By design silent films have a far-reaching interpretative wingspan and this can confuse viewers, or at the very least distract us from events actively playing out on screen. That is not the case here — you can translate the film as you please, and the more thematic mining you do the more fascinating it is. Thea von Harbou’s screenplay evolves into a game of pseudo-AI deception, where life’s more positive aspects (such as love) are warped and used against our central protagonist.

Even revolts, which are often stimulated by underdog collectives seeking to rise up against injustice, are inverted through artifice in Metropolis — the workers’ revolt is manufactured without their knowledge by Joh, another instance of the overseer using his influence to puppeteer society. Said uprising unveils some Titanic-esque disaster imagery involving, again, water, and you being to wonder if James Cameron was influenced by the class crisis on display here when writing his record-breaking flick.

The piece’s appearance is something to behold, particularly given it is almost a century old. It is plain to see how other filmmakers were visually galvanised: Ridley Scott and Blade Runner’s neo-noir cityscape; Luc Besson and The Fifth Element’s futuristic allure; George Lucas and Star Wars’ hovercraft network. Utilising miniatures, effects master Eugen Schüfftan created an urban locale resembling New York (director Lang was inspired by the concrete jungle during a visit).

But the smaller details stand out as much as the larger ones — glowing science fiction spirals sit atop desks and hang beneath ceilings, their ascending-descending design mirroring Metropolis’ upper and lower class system. A wonderfully shot elevator scene sees Freder sink with hope gleaming from his eyes as the menacing Thin Man rises, the pair just missing each other. Silent movie performances are about body movements and facial expressions, and this sequence captures that imperative notion perhaps more than any other.

Time has afforded Metropolis even greater substance. Terrifyingly so, given its underlying message — that centralised sovereignty shouldn’t prevail — is still a widely problematic phenomenon at large in various parts of the world today. The movie is a bit long and some might find its war on capitalism too one-sided (Netflix is great after all), but this is pioneering filmmaking.

Metropolis - City

Images credit: IMP Awards, Film 110

Images copyright (©): UFA, Paramount Pictures