Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) in an inspiring author who has been tormented by the ghost of her dead mother for the majority of her life. She wants to leave behind her humdrum existence living her with father (Jim Beaver) and explore the world. So when the affluent Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) appears, with a tempting offer of marriage and a move to his English abode, she must decide between the beguiling stranger, or her childhood friend, Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam). It’s no secret who her father would rather she choose, with an instant dislike for the English visitor – which may be a justified opinion, particularly when his vindictive sister Lady Lucille (Jessica Chastain) enters the fray.
There’s an indelible, ineffably enchanting ambiance to this dark feature, with a gothic grandiosity that makes for a visually astounding piece of cinema. Everything is so perfected, every single frame feels deliberate, as though every object, every shadow, has been crafted in a meticulous, particular way. But that’s not all that creates this ethereal, sordid atmosphere, enhanced by the deeply sexual undertones, particularly the incestuous feelings between the Sharpes. But that mystical, supernaturalism is undermined somewhat, by del Toro’s inclination to show us so much. Not only are there a handful of violent sequences which seem almost out of place in this otherworldly environment, but so little is left to our imagination, as we witness too many images of the ghosts, too frequent in their inclusion, and too cartoon-like visually, doing nothing but detracting from any sense of trepidation or fear.
The casting just about makes up for that however, with three inspired selections in Chastain, Hiddleston and Wasikowska, each with a certain gothic quality to their appearance that sees them fit so perfectly into this world – which won’t be a surprise to those who saw the latter two in the recent Only Lovers Left Alive. The ability between the trio helps matter too, managing to take a somewhat monotonous narrative and bring it to life as best they can.
But the film suffers from attempting too much, not revelling in the horror tendencies, nor thriving in the more magical, while the romance running through the picture is a challenge to adhere to. Early on we see Edith submitting a manuscript to a publisher, who informs her that her ghost story is in need of a love story. She unwittingly obliges, disappointed she has to include something so superfluous that will drag her tale down. Well, perhaps del Toro could have heeded such advice himself, because the romantic angle is jarring and detracts from the more thrilling and terrifying sequences, which is where the film truly comes into its element.