Mia Wasikowska is proof of reincarnation. The Australian actress must be possessed by the spirit of Lillian Gish. At 22 — the same age that Gish starred in Birth of a Nation — Wasikowska became a bankable name playing the lead in Tim Burton's garish Alice in Wonderland. In the four years since, she's used her clout to squeeze into corsets. Cannily, Wasikowska has capitalized on her strengths: her intelligent stare, her introverted smile, and her raw handsomeness, which looks as freshly scrubbed as a shucked pearl. Even when pressed to play a modern woman, Wasikowska insists on a twist: In Only Lovers Left Alive, she was a rock 'n' roll immortal; in David Cronenberg's Maps to the Stars, she hid her arms in long, black gloves like a grungy grand dame. Like the best vintage heroines, she radiates both pluck and frailty. Her characters can almost certainly save themselves, but they make us want to jump heroically into the screen just in case.
Naturally, Wasikowska is perfectly cast in Guillermo del Toro's gothic romance Crimson Peak as short-story writer Edith Cushing, who sacrifices her happy spinsterhood to marry a mysterious British baron (Tom Hiddleston) who comes with a haunted mansion and an all-too-real wicked sister (Jessica Chastain). Edith starts the film as a practical woman who just wants to live with her doting father (Jim Beaver) and publish ghost stories. When her first tale is rejected by a condescending prat who merely compliments her handwriting, she squares her shoulders and submits it again — this time, typed. But after Hiddleston's charming Sir Tom whisks her from Buffalo to England, Wasikowska allows her sturdy girl to simper. She's so deadpan-perfect for the part, her casting could almost be part of the joke, along with Edith's wilting-pansy-covered coats, avalanche of blond curls, and velvet dresses with mutton sleeves that grow larger with every scene.
Edith's costumes get puffier and ever more fragile — her tragic heroine is so overinflated she could pop. So too could the film, which is so bombastic, so emotional, so beautiful that one misstep could burst del Toro's ambitions so that the whole thing collapses into a sputtering lampoon. It might have if del Toro had stuck with his original actress, Emma Stone, a charmer who probably couldn't resist playing Edith with a wink — she's too clever to play innocent. But Wasikowska and del Toro are in sync. They're committed to telling this high-toned spook story straight, even though it might take audiences a couple of reels to get their groove. And, like Edith waltzing with her husband-to-be, once we take Crimson Peak's hand, we're likely hooked.
This is an unnatural film twice over. First, it's astonishing del Toro's $57 million Hammer Horror was funded — though, compared to his three-times-costlier Pacific Rim, this time keeping the director happy is comparatively cheap. Second, each frame is deliriously artificial. Del Toro indulges in dramatic thunderclaps and over-the-moon production design. The crumbling mansion where Sir Tom transplants his bride is a gorgeous nightmare: Dead flies cover the tables, the red clay soil bleeds into the house, ghouls writhe in the halls, and the roof has a hole so big it must have been punched through by God. Leaves rain through that opening, though there are no trees around. In the winter, the ceiling snows. And if you're wondering why Sir Tom doesn't just hire a repairman, watch a more realistic movie. Asked how many rooms this family seat has, he shrugs, "I don't know?"
As Edith's sister-in-law Lady Lucille, Chastain is a fabulous monster. The first time we see her, she's disrupting a cocktail party in a red silk dress with a spiny back and scales. Later, she feeds a butterfly to ants — del Toro zooms in on the nest devouring its eye — and, later still, somehow scares us while squeezing a fistful of scrambled eggs. By the time Chastain scrapes a spoon against a bowl of porridge with the scrrrrawwwwp of nails on a chalkboard, she has us in nervous, fearful giggles. It's the first fun role Chastain has had in years. Keep them coming.
Like Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof, Crimson Peak is del Toro's faithful homage to a foolish genre. The risk is that audiences who don't share that love won't appreciate the work, like the world's best cover band nailing obscure nu-metal hits. Eyes may roll at Crimson Peak's quirks: the loud gasp when Sir Tom asks Edith to dance, the repeated use of an old-timey iris wipe, the unabashed symphonic score. As the baron says of Edith's book, "It's absurdly sentimental." So what? All great melodramas must be. The "melo-" in "melodrama" is from the Greek for "song." Though this movie waltzes to its own strange rhythm, del Toro hits every note.
Starring Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, and Jim Beaver. Directed by Guillermo del Toro. Written by Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins. 119 minutes. Rated R.