Premiered on October 16, 2015. 119 minutes, rated R
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Written by Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins
“Ghosts are real,” begins this film. The line is spoken by Edith Cushing, who looks to be in a snowfield. She flashes back to the two times she saw a ghost, both times it was her mother. It was just after her mother’s death and she was alone in her room when her mother visited her with a warning. The ghost returned a decade later with the same warning. In this span of time Edith has grown into a fine, independent woman who wants to be a writer. She’s trying to have her story published, but has been unsuccessful. She meets Thomas Sharpe when he enters her father’s place of business for an appointment. He’s trying to procure funds for a mechanical device that will allow him to mine his land which contains clay that will make the hardest of bricks. This meeting leads to his asking Edith to a formal, which does not please her father. At the gathering of society’s finest, Lucille Sharpe is present, playing skillfully on the piano. Things happen and Edith finds herself falling for Thomas. What happens after this night sets up all that is to follow.
This a quintessential Gothic story. There is a romance, a mystery, and a supernatural element. If a viewer has read any Gothic literature or seen any Gothic films, this will be familiar territory — too familiar territory. Every surprise the films gives in the romance and mystery genres has already been fathomed out by the viewer at least a half an hour prior to its reveal. This isn’t to say it’s bad, it’s just predictable. I saw this film with my sixteen year old daughter and she knew what was going to happen before it was shown. The supernatural elements are much better, and del Toro excels at employing such creatures, but they don’t do much in this film. Based on the one trailer I saw, I thought there would be more of them, but there aren’t. One subplot involving a child is a waste because it does not increase sympathy for a character, nor does it move the plot forward: it was a throwaway device, easily edited out with nothing lost from the film. There is a violent action that happens to Edith in the last half hour that she walked off after less than fifteen minutes — this was too much to believe. There is only one other violent action in the film, which occurs in America, but after that there’s no bloodletting to speak of that will please those looking for such fare. The ending is not surprising, though what occurs with Charlie Hunnam’s character was a surprise, but he’s a B-character in this story. When all is said and done, the story is well done for a Gothic tale, but contains nothing that will surprise viewers vaguely familiar with the genre, and there’s not enough of a supernatural element to please horror fans. It will not fully satisfy any viewer.
The actors do a good job with the script. Lead Mia Wasikowska starts as a strong woman, but becomes a frail individual trapped by her heart. Something is being done to her character that when commented on by another prompted someone in the audience to laugh and say, “But she always looks pale.” This was a good point: it’s hard to tell if someone is ill when their skin is naturally pale. Tom Hiddleston will only increase his fan base with this film. He is sensational in the role of Thomas Sharpe and is both devious and sympathetic. His presence in the room is fantastic. However, it’s Jessica Chastain who steals the film. She is too prim and proper for viewers to ignore and once back in England, her true personality is revealed. Every word from her mouth was weighted and she looks sensational as she enters or exits a room. The script has her character significantly changing, but that’s typical for this genre. Charlie Hunnam is good as Alan McMichael, with him actually being likened to a famous writer’s character, and that foreshadows how he’ll act for the majority of the film. Jim Beaver (Bobby from television’s Supernatural) is great as Edith’s father Carter, with his moments with Wasikowska ringing true. Torchwood‘s Brun Groman has a small role as Holly, who comes off as a very strong character. And it wouldn’t be a del Toro movie without Doug Jones (Abe Sapien from the Hellboy films and Pan from Pan’s Labyrinth) present. He’s unrecognizable in his two roles, save his hand gestures when he first appears.
The house is also a star of this film. It is an exceptionally designed structure with a gigantic entrance room, whose ceiling could use a slight repair, a lavish bedroom for its master and his wife, a series of creepy, spiky hallways, an attic that serves as a workshop, a huge library, a frightful lift, and a location in the basement that cannot be revealed without spoiling a plot point. This movie should be nominated for, and will probably win, an Academy Award for set design. It will definitely win the Academy Award for best costumes: I can think of no other film this year with such lavish or varied costumes; plus, turn of the century period pieces often due well at the Oscars. The special effects are also well done, but don’t “wow” like most effects work. The ghosts look very ghoulish, but nothing new is done with them. There are several insects in the movie that are effects, but are so life-like as to be considered real. The house and the locations have been created or expanded with effects, but, again, don’t serve to impress.
The final line: A lavish looking, well acted film brought down by an overdose of Gothic tropes. It looks gorgeous, but its tale is overly familiar. The story needed more time spent on it. Overall grade: B-