This post contains spoilers for the entirety of Crimson Peak and is best read after watching the film. If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s our spoiler-free review.
Guillermo del Toro can’t stop talking about the women of Crimson Peak. “I made a point to make every man in the film useless,” he told Reuters. He spent much of his panel at Comic-Con last year talking about how the “twists [are] gender subverted” and that working “in a world with a secret gender war” gives him a responsibility to create culture that affirms his two daughters. He’s right, of course. But instead of proving del Toro’s claims, Crimson Peak offers more proof that strong women whose interactions ace the Bechdel test are not enough to make a film revolutionary.
There are early signs that we shouldn’t expect any deep subversion from Crimson Peak. Rare is the plucky fantasy heroine with a living mother, and within the first minute we learn that Mrs. Cushing died when protagonist Edith (Mia Wasikowska) was a child. Her deliciously inky ghost appears twice to issue foreboding warnings, but these cameos are a poor substitute for an actual character, and it would have been more radical of del Toro simply to give Edith back her mother.
The lack of a maternal figure suggests, as it does in all fairy tales featuring motherless girls, that strength blooms only in the absence of feminine influence. It also leaves heroines disempowered romantically and sexually. Their fathers’ guidance is usually limited, as Mr. Cushing later demonstrates, to blustering protectiveness; the kind of nuanced wisdom about love that is often passed down through generations of women isn’t available, leaving daughters conveniently vulnerable to handsome strangers. (And in case anyone doubts whether Crimson Peak is in fact a fairy tale, its onscreen title appears on the cover of an old book.)
Edith grows into the American Victorian version of Belle from Beauty and the Beast: gorgeous and bespectacled, more interested in books than boys. She’s an aspiring novelist who learns to type in order to hide her feminine handwriting (feminist commentary!). Unfortunately, del Toro also makes her a special snowflake, deserving of protagonist status specifically because she’s not like “normal girls”; the only other women with speaking roles in the first third of the film are catty society ladies who denigrate Edith’s intelligence and looks. Even beyond her absent mother, del Toro denies Edith meaningful connections with other women — and gets in a jab about the worthlessness of traditional femininity. How daring it would have been for him to give Edith a close female friend. But, like the equally brazen women of his films Mimic, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Pacific Rim, she knows only men: her father and her childhood friend, Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam, struggling valiantly to maintain an American accent).
These men express appropriate concern when a third, the dashing Englishman Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), arrives and sweeps Edith off her feet. Timing in this story is vague, but the romance between Thomas and Edith progresses at an alarming rate. For a woman so well versed, by her own admission, in Austen and Shelley, Edith submits quickly to Thomas’ advances, giving up her literary aims in favor of what every smart girl secretly wants, apparently: a husband.
Mr. Cushing objects to this sudden development and bribes Thomas and his creepy sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain; more on her shortly) to leave abruptly. The next day, Mr. Cushing turns up dead — by Lucille’s hand, we later learn — conveniently clearing the way for Edith and Thomas’ marriage. At Mr. Cushing’s funeral, Edith clutches Thomas as Dr. McMichael watches longingly. The men exchange a nod to acknowledge that ownership of the object of both their affection has been transferred. The Bro Code is upheld.
Things get more promising when Edith and Thomas move across to Allendale Hall, the Sharpes’ crumbling English mansion. Against Edith’s warmth and curiosity, Lucille is mercurial and tense; del Toro may not make feminist films, but his women are fully realized and formidable, and he succeeds in giving them the strength to overpower their men both physically and psychologically. Since Crimson Peak is a fairy tale, it needs a wicked stepmother, and in this regard Lucille is a queen among queens, her hatred of Edith infusing every one of their interactions with freezing cold and foreboding menace. Forget the corporeal, dripping ghosts that infest the house: it’s Lucille who is the stuff of nightmares.
Now that it’s too late for her to escape, Edith deduces that Lucille and Thomas have run out of money and already murdered three other wives for their fortunes. They’ve also been screwing each other for decades. Edith figures this out because she’s smart and inquisitive, but that’s not enough to outwit Lucille, who pushes her over a balcony in a jealous rage after discovering that Edith and Thomas have consummated their marriage.
The original sin that created Crimson Peak’s horrors is male violence: the Sharpes’ father gambled away their fortune and brutally beat their mother, driving her so insane that Lucille eventually murdered her to protect Thomas. Lucille reveals this over a series of conversations with Edith, describing the codependent relationship she shared with Mrs. Sharpe as a struggle between two women to reckon with the scars of trauma. But the film is not a metaphor for the very real ramifications of abuse, and this backstory feels more like a throwaway justification for the siblings’ behavior than a carefully considered rumination. Crimson Peak centers its women but misses an opportunity to make that centrality count in a bigger way.
While the Sharpes slowly poison Edith, a still-pining Alan sleuths after the siblings and, discovering that Thomas had married and murdered previously, goes to England to rescue her. After (crucially) instructing local postal workers to follow him to Allendale if he doesn’t return, he arrives at the house, lifts Edith from her wheelchair and declares that he’s “getting her out.”
Both del Toro and reviewers point to what happens next as irrefutable evidence of Crimson Peak’s gender subversion: Edith “saves herself” after both Lucille and (reluctantly) Thomas stab Alan, incapacitating him while Edith and Lucille battle it out. Edith, of course, triumphs eventually and bashes Lucille’s head in with a shovel. She goes back for Alan and drags him with her to the safety of the waiting townspeople.
In describing this conclusion as Edith “saving herself,” the film’s champions miss the fact that if it weren’t for Alan’s rescue attempt, she would have died, too weak to write home for help, let alone drag herself from the house. And if Alan hadn’t asked the townspeople to follow him, both he and Edith would have perished from snow or blood loss. It was not Edith’s strength that saved her. It was Alan’s refusal to accept his place in the friendzone.
It’s wonderful that del Toro created such meaty, complex roles for Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska, and other filmmakers should follow suit. But they should also be cautious about so boldly declaring big, subversive feminist aims. It’s not enough to make your women strong and your men weak. You’ve got to go much deeper than that if you want to start a revolution.