A Gothic vampire novella gets a new lease of life in Emily Harris’s debut
Dir/scr. Emily Harris. UK. 2019. 95 mins.
Although it pre-dates Bram Stoker’s Dracula by nearly three decades, Sheridan Le Fanu’s 19th-century gothic vampire novella Carmilla hasn’t taken a bite out of cinema or popular culture with the same force. Handsomely staged, moodily lit and teeming with verdant scenery though it is, Emily Harris’ melancholy adaptation is unlikely to change that fact. The film’s blend of superstitious brooding, sapphic romance and sexual awakening should attract modest interest —otherworldly love stories, subversive accounts of forbidden longing and timely tales of female subjugation are rarely out of fashion — but this restrained affair could ultimately use a bit more blood in its veins.
Carmilla is eager but still not quite willing to completely sink its teeth in.
Carmilla isn’t afraid to splash tasteful splatters of blood, or to watch as 15 year-old Lara (Hannah Rae) succumbs to the movie’s alluring titular stranger (Devrim Lingnau). And yet, despite proffering a redolent account of young women rallying against repression, as well as the fear too often inspired by burgeoning femininity, it often feels as if it’s going through the motions. Harris’ solo directorial debut after 2009’s Borges and I and 2015’s Paragraph is patiently paced and careful with its supernatural coming-of-age angle, but a little too much to garner broad appeal. Without any substantial name recognition either from the source material or a cast that counts Tobias Menzies (Game of Thrones, Outlander) as its biggest star, the film may fare best with streaming audiences after its Edinburgh premiere.
Continually dubbed a dreamer by her stern, scolding governess Miss Fontaine (Jessica Raine), and usually left with no one else for company in her father’s (Greg Wise) absence, Lara counts the days until a girl from a neighbouring town comes to stay for three months. When news of her would-be friend’s sudden illness and cancellation arrives, it hits the teen hard — until the mysterious, glamorous Carmilla appears unexpectedly in the night, needing a place to recover after a carriage crash.
Alternating between candle-lit interiors and sun-dappled gardens, Carmilla perfects the experience not just of first love, but of the heady excitement of being completely bewitched by someone new; as cinematographer Michael Wood (Let Me Go) relays in the feature’s most expressive, atmospheric touch, it’s hazy, ethereal and almost hyper-real. Indeed, as Lara and Carmilla gravitate towards each other in both infatuated dreams and stolen moments, and as Miss Fontaine’s suspicions increase, Harris always finds the right visual language to convey the movie’s simmering sentiments. (And, thanks to detailed art direction and production design, the right sumptuous overall look, as well.)
Still, as aesthetically and emotionally loaded as each frame proves, there’s a stiffness to proceedings that Carmilla can’t quite shake. There’s a sense of obviousness, too; writing as well as directing, Harris is hardly shy about the story’s symbolism, or of Carmilla’s herself for that matter. Artfully shot images of bugs crawling, natural decay and Lara’s left hand bound behind her back (to train her to favour her right, and also to do what’s right) only augment the sensation that the film is forcing its point within controlled confines, rather than letting its fertile themes, characters and story evolve, engage and resonate naturally.
Other than its visuals, if there’s a feeling of fluidity to Carmilla, it emanates from Rae and Lingnau in their few shared scenes. At the opposite extreme, Raine also makes an impression in the strict, forbidding role. Of course, that contrast says plenty about this yearning yet frequently cautious movie. It’s as if, in giving its source material a new lease on life, grappling with its gothic origins, adding to the teen-oriented supernatural love story canon and showing how society treats female passion, Carmilla is eager but still not quite willing to completely sink its teeth in.
Production companies: Bird Flight Films
Sales: Altitude Film Distribution, firstname.lastname@example.org
Producers: Emily Precious, Lizzie Brown
Cinematography: Michael Wood
Editing: Rebecca Lloyd
Music: Phillip Selway
Production design: Alex Walker
Main cast: Hannah Rae, Devrim Lingnau, Jessica Raine, Tobias Menzies, Greg Wise, Lorna Gayle