The plot of Crimson Peak is largely transparent, and del Toro's attempts to dress it up amount to either soapy escalation or holding onto key plot points long past the point they've been introduced. There's little doubt of the Sharpe's intentions, and del Toro never provides an alternative anyways. An investigating character played by Charlie Hunnam never gets ahead of the audience in his deductions, as the viewer just watches him track Carter's pre-murder interactions and talk to the PI. What does differentiate Crimson Peak's plot is Edith's ability to see ghosts, or have highly vivid dreams. These specters are exceptionally designed and chilling, but the main purpose they serve is to give Edith vague warnings, a message ably communicated by the general appearance of the mansion itself and Lucille's malevolent standoffishness. The viewer is wary long before ghosts show up, and the result is detracting towards Edith's intelligence, especially as she writes the exact kind of stories that she now finds herself in.
With a plot so apparent and consistently unsurprising, the film is left to rest on the characters, and the central trio are plenty sturdy. Wasikowska is inherently watchable in anything, and her transformation from an independent young woman to a kept wife and back to independence as she unravels the mystery is an arc that she executes with aplomb. Hiddleston has no issue playing a suave aristocrat, and the gradual sense of guilt that creeps into his character gives him another shade to play. Chastain has no such shading, seductively introduced with her back to the camera, playing a piano while wearing the only red dress in a room full of partygoers. She throws herself into the conniving aspect of her character, and steals the film from her highly capable costars. Del Toro supplements their efforts with clever set pieces and dialogue, with all participants showing themselves to be varying levels of intelligent and crafty. Victories are mostly dictated by who's smartest in each battle, and the loser is easily imagined as a winner if not for one tiny mistake.
Amidst the staid plot and the crackling repartee is del Toro's stellar production design. The Crimson Peak set is as impressive as anything he's ever done. The film doesn't arrive at its best aspect until a good chunk of time has elapsed, and the wait is worth it. A failing English manor is a potent enough symbol and setting: to make it look bloodied is icing on the cake. The characters all look bloodstained, contributing to the constant level of suspicion, and the huge, swirling red cauldrons of melted clay in the basement are hypnotic. Del Toro isn't making his best film in Crimson Peak, but there are plenty of bests contained within. B