Like the best vintage heroines, Mia Wasikowska 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. 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 bigger with every scene.
The 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. 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. Meanwhile, that sister-in-law, Lady Lucille, is a fabulous monster, the first fun role Chastain has had in years.