- Emma Simmonds
- 12 October 2020
Emily Harris offers a sensual and subversive take on Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's vampire story
The tragedy of female oppression and the thrill of sexual discovery merge in Emily Harris's heady, streamlined take on Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's 1872 Gothic novella. Less bloodsucking than previous renderings, its beautiful green-eyed stranger acts as a giddy tonic for a wan, lonely girl.
Laura becomes Lara in a tale now set amid the English countryside, where our innocent, isolated heroine (played by Broadchurch's Hannah Rae) is kept in check by the severe Miss Fontaine (Jessica Raine). When her promised companion is taken ill, it's quickly followed by a carriage accident which brings a mysterious lady into their home (German actress Devrim Lingnau). Although she's never identified, Lara comes to call this woman Carmilla.
With its hazy, romantic cinematography (courtesy of Michael Wood, the second unit DP on films such as Rush and My Cousin Rachel) and little in the way of establishing shots, it's almost untethered to reality, so sealed off is their world. The surrounding landscape is portrayed so gloriously it, too, seems plucked from a dream. As a curious teen living a life of gloomy piety, Lara's fascination with the natural world is tied to her sexual awakening; the way the sunlight warms her skin, or her fingers tentatively brush the surface of a lake speaks of a woman looking to touch and be touched.
Raine brings glimpses of powerful humanity to the brittle, controlling governess. She speaks awkwardly of her own romantic humiliation and her genuine shock at a saucy book emphasises her unworldliness. Though her punishments can be desperately cruel, when she tells Lara, 'You keep to my rules and all will be well,' it comes off more as protective rather than threatening. Lingnau's sparkling sense of mischief makes Carmilla irresistible and Rae invests Lara with a poignant longing and believable naivety. There's adept support from Tobias Menzies as the local doctor and Greg Wise as Lara's father, well-cast, if less than essential to this female-dominated tale.
Though there are gorily erotic dreams and blood pacts, Harris swaps out the explicitly vampiric for the more enigmatic and allegorical in a film that respectfully distances itself from Hammer and the like. Opting for something more sensitive and intriguing, Carmilla immerses us in a sensual uprising against stiflingly chaste times.
Available to watch in cinemas from Fri 16 Oct.