‘Ghosts are real,’ says Edith Cushing, ten years before her mother’s ghost visits her at home, and off we go into one of the least well marketed movies of recent years.
A number of friends went to see this as soon as it came out, for one reason or another. All of them found themselves surprised to be watching a gothic and some of them left rather confused because they didn’t know what a gothic even was. To be fair, it’s hardly a vibrant modern genre and the last gothic most of us saw was Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows, which was neither a good representation nor a good memory for anyone who saw it. Suffice it to say, this underwhelmed as the horror film people expected and worked only for those who knew what it actually was.
As a Guillermo del Toro fan of long standing, I was surprised to be underwhelmed too, just not quite so much as most viewers.
For a start, it’s utterly gorgeous, with imposing architecture, glorious costumes and organic camera movements. I was greatly impressed by the lighting, which feels like it comes entirely from the gas or electric light fittings we see rather than from anything outside of our vision. It only gets better as we shift over the pond, as the family mansion of Sir Thomas Sharpe is absolutely stunning, even if it has a huge hole in the roof that lets in the snow. Allerdale Hall is a magical location for the second half of the film and the set decoration is wonderful.
The acting is strong too, with Mia Wasikowska put to much better use in the lead than she was in Alice in Wonderland. It occurs to me here that I also used to be a Tim Burton fan of long standing, I’ve talked down two of his recent movies in this review thus far and I really hope del Toro isn’t going to use his career as a template. Tim Hiddleston is a revelation here, deeper and more complex after a single scene than he managed during the entirety ofThor, which was even worse than a modern Tim Burton movie, and soon deeper than he’s managed across the entire Avengers franchise. Jim Beaver is almost unrecognisable to those who know him from Supernatural but he gives Hiddleston a run for his money.
What weakens this heady Victorian mix is the script, which is promising for a while but soon reveals itself to be a predictable mass of archetypes, aided and abetted chiefly by Jessica Chastain, who plays an important character, Lucille Sharpe, continually like her reveal rather than her deception.
Wasikowska is Edith, an aspiring author and daughter of Carter Cushing, whom Sir Thomas visits in Buffalo, New York, to seek funding for an invention that he’s designed. His family estate sits upon vast deposits of magnificent red clay and he merely needs the means to extract it commercially. Edith and Sir Thomas are immediately attracted to each other and her father isn’t having any of it. When he sends the baronet on his way with a cheque to guarantee the two will never meet again, he’s promptly murdered and the couple married. Off we shift to Cumberland to discover if what we’ve already guessed is the case really is.
The writers, Matthew Robbins and del Toro himself, do a good job of setting us up, prompting us to ask questions and examine relationships. In Buffalo, there are many character dynamics of note: Edith and her father; Edith and her admirer, Dr Alan McMichael, who indulges a hobby of photographing ghosts; Edith and Sir Thomas, who is notably forward; Sir Thomas, with his dark sunglasses, and his sister, Lucille, even darker in style; and Sir Thomas and Carter, whose money kicks the story into motion.
Given that the cast decreases to merely three actors when we hop the pond, you might expect those dynamics to disappear, but they’re merely replaced. Now we’re watching Sir Thomas and his new wife, Edith, a fish out of water in these new surroundings of northern England; Sir Thomas and his notably jealous sister, Lucille; Lucille and Edith, who are like chalk and cheese; Edith and the mysterious figure who wanders around Allerdale Hall with some sort of purpose; each character and the dog which appears out of nowhere and attaches itself to Edith; and Edith and the house itself, a decaying and often oppressive structure which talks, bleeds and conceals many secrets.
I took a lot more notes about that second set of character dynamics but I can’t pose any of the questions which I wrote down because every possibility I raised turns out to become the case and each would thus constitute a spoiler. Now, I am familiar with the gothic amalgam of romance and horror, so I always knew roughly what to expect, but I’ve been surprised before and was sad to find that wasn’t here at any point.
If Robbins and del Toro aimed simply to put a gothic in front of unfamiliar contemporary eyes, then they succeeded admirably and only the marketing threw them off. If, however, they wanted to create a gothic that would stand the test of time, almost a requirement in this timeless genre, they failed because they couldn’t bring anything new to the table except production values and that’s just not enough. ~~ Hal C F Astell