Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) isn’t your expected Victorian era heroine. She lives in Buffalo, New York with her father (Jim Beaver). Their sun-dappled world of oak-paneled drawing rooms and walks in the park is one of conversation and growth. She’s bright, speaks her mind, and is encouraged on both fronts by her adoring father. The rapidly expanding America of the early 20th century is reflected in Edith’s refusal to use the fountain pen gifted to her by her father, because her graceful handwriting will give her away as a woman. She instead opts to use the new typewriter at her father’s office. She’s learned to navigate imposed limits.
Until the mysterious Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) arrives, looking for backers for a business venture that will restore his family fortune. After being rebuffed by Edith’s father, he turns his eye on Edith. He woos her, against the wishes of his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). After Edith’s father dies, she marries Thomas and returns to his family home with him. Allerdale Hall, a hideously beautiful mansion in the north of England, recalls the corpse of a once great ruler. A jagged hole in the roof lets in snow. Oily red clay bleeds out of the walls. It’s a country where everyone knows their place and secrets slowly spread through walls like mold. It’s the kind of place designed to crush and consume a person like Edith—and it speaks to the radical humanism of Guillermo Del Toro’s film that it does not.
For all the gore and terror of the horror genre, there is often a puritanical streak when it comes to the sexual proclivities of its characters. One of the many pleasant surprises in Crimson Peak, then, is how a woman’s ownership of her sexuality inadvertently causes a chain reaction that will save her life. Even if, as can only be expected in Gothic horror, she gets put through the wringer first.
It’s presented as only natural that she would wish to sleep with her new husband. Her growing consternation at waking up every morning to find herself alone and Thomas’s half of the bed unslept in, is all too understandable. When Thomas and Edith finally consummate their relationship—notably not in Allerdale Hall, but in a cozy room in the nearest village—Edith is not a trembling maiden being ravished by a brooding Byronic hero. She is in full control of their love-making. She rolls herself on top of her husband and the scene fades as she works herself to orgasm.
Their return to Allerdale Hall, radiant and laughing, causes a temperature change in Lucille. Volcanic rage erupts through her composed veneer. Lucille’s simmering jealousy of Edith is not only monetary; it’s sexual. Thomas and Lucille’s incestuous relationship is the poison root that feeds Allerdale Hall. They clung to each other to weather an abusive childhood. In adulthood, the pair have been unable to untangle themselves in favor of healthy, nurturing relationships. With no money to their titles, they seek out vulnerable, wealthy women. But for the first time, Thomas is falling for their quarry, which not only threatens the economic order Lucille has arranged, but their romantic one as well.
Thomas has also been irrevocably changed by the night in town. It was a healing encounter, and he’s doomed by that. He wants a life with Edith, but he still loves his sister. He foolishly believes he can have both and start over. Lucille wants to quicken Edith’s death; Thomas wants to stop her. He’s had enough. They’ve done too many monstrous acts in order to keep a house they both despise.
But a cornerstone of the Gothic is how the past is inescapable. He pleads with Lucille to reconsider killing Edith. She plunges the knife into him several times instead. Lucille crumples from rage to horror, as she cradles his dying body. Driven mad with grief for her brother, she chases Edith outside, to the front of Allerdale Hall. The sky is eerily white, the snow on the ground soaked through with red clay. They swipe and slash at each other, until Thomas’s ghost arrives. Taking advantage of Lucille’s momentary distraction, Edith kills her. She saves herself, claiming agency for her person and her future.
Edith and Thomas then share a goodbye, one of the most moving in Del Toro’s entire filmography. Thomas’s ghost, marble-white with a smoking wound in his face, looks at Edith with tenderness and regret for a life that could have been with her. Edith reaches out to gently stroke Thomas’s face. He leans into her touch for a moment and then disappears into the air. Thomas was unable to free himself from his past sins, but he is free from Allerdale Hall at last. Edith, with a gash across her cheek and a broken leg, limps to safety.
Edith is more than a survivor, a Final Girl in mutton sleeves. She is the author of her own story and her own body. She gives herself to Thomas because she wants to. She’s not punished for loving foolishly, but rather, allowed to rally her wits and will to survive. Crimson Peak has no interest in meting out judgment. It’s a beautiful, aching meditation on grief, mourning, and the scars our physical and psychic history leave on us. Allerdale Hall is the mind and body scarred by trauma, its ghosts walking memories begging not to be forgotten. And in a toxic environment, where sex contributed to moral decay, it is also sex that finally exorcises the ghosts of Allerdale Hall. An act between two consenting people done in love can be beautiful enough to chase out the darkness. Lucille meant to frighten Edith earlier in the film with her comment, said over a dying butterfly, that “beautiful things are fragile.” But she was wrong. Beautiful things can be strong too.