Review: ‘Carmilla,’ starring Jessica Raine, Tobias Menzies, Greg Wise, Hannah Rae and Devrim Lingnau

July 17, 2020

by Carla Hay

Hannah Rae and Devrim Lingnau in “Carmilla” (Photo by Nick Wall/Film Movement)

“Carmilla” 

Directed by Emily Harris

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1780s rural England, the drama “Carmilla” has an nearly all-white cast (with one black person) representing the  wealthy and middle-class.

Culture Clash:  When a mysterious teenager recuperates from a carriage accident in an unfamiliar family’s home, her presence causes conflicts among the widower, his teenage daughter and governess who live there.

Culture Audience: “Carmilla” will appeal primarily to people who like coming-of-age dramas that have arthouse sensibilities.

Jessica Raine and Hannah Rae in “Carmilla” (Photo courtesy of Film Movement))

The haunting period drama “Carmilla” is a perfect example of a movie that does a lot with a little. The film’s cast consists of less than 10 people, and the movie was filmed in just 22 days, according to the “Carmilla” production notes. But “Carmilla” (beautifully written and directed Emily Harris) far surpasses many other movies with considerably larger budgets and casts.

Based on the 1872 Gothic novella “Carmilla” by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, this movie adaptation makes a few changes from the source material. The novella was set in 19th century Austria, while the movie takes place in 18th century England—the 1780s, to be exact. Many of the characters in the book are not in the movie. The story’s innocent teenager is named Laura in the book but is named Lara in the movie. And the biggest change in the movie is that it’s not a vampire story, although the erotic and intimate undertones of sharing blood are definitely part of the movie.

It was a bold and ultimately wise choice for writer/director Harris not to make this movie version of “Carmilla” a vampire story. First, it would put this movie in the horror genre, which would distract from the true essence of the story: It’s a meditation about how two teenage girls react to a repressive society when the girls start to have feelings for each other that go beyond friendship.

And secondly, any film about a teenage vampire is going to get inevitable comparisons to the blockbuster “Twilight” movie series, which was a hit with audiences but ridiculed by more artistically minded people, such as movie critics and filmmakers. And there have already been a horror-comedy Web series and a movie based on the “Carmilla” novella.

The “Carmilla” movie from writer/director Harris is imbued with a quiet, deliberate aura that manages to convey the oppressive but physically lush atmosphere where the story is set. It’s an insular world where disobedience and being different, especially if one is of the female gender, are met with cruel punishment. In a rural, isolated manor, 15-year-old Lara (played by Hanna Rae) has a very regimented and sheltered life, but she has the type of curiosity that makes it apparent that she’s feeling stifled.

Lara has an emotionally distant widower father named Mr. Bauer (played by Greg Wise), so the main adult figure in her life is Lara’s strict and very superstitious governess Miss Fontaine (played by Jessica Raine), who is in her 30s and who controls almost every aspect of Lara’s life. When Lara asks questions such as, “Where do spirits go?,” Miss Fontaine tells her about heaven.

There’s a dark side to Lara having Miss Fontaine as a teacher/authority figure. Miss Fontaine, just like many people of that era, believes that being left-handed is a sign of evil. And because Lara is left-handed, Miss Fontaine has inflicted some torturous methods to force Lara not to use her left hand when she’s writing, including hitting Lara’s left hand and making Lara wear her left arm in a tightly bound sling.

Miss Fontaine also physically abuses Lara by hitting her repeatedly as a way of punishing Lara for other reasons. One of these punishments happens when Lara is caught hiding one of her father’s books that has illustrations of people being tortured. Miss Fontaine severely disciplines Lara about the book because the teenager took the book from her father’s study without his permission.

“You and your left hand, playing with the devil,” Miss Fontaine scolds Lara while physically assaulting her. Miss Fontaine also orders Lara to pray to repent for her sins. There are two other servants shown in the Bauer household—a maid named Margaret (played by Lorna Gayle) and a stableman named Paul (played by Daniel Tuite)—but Miss Fontaine is at the top of the household’s employee hierarchy. Margaret and Paul are essentially supporting characters that passively follow orders.

Being an only child with no friends has made Lara a very lonely teenager. She has been anticipating the visit of another teenager named Charlotte, who is the daughter of a family friend. But Charlotte has become very ill, so her visit has been postponed. (Charlotte had planned to stay at the Bauer home for several months.) There’s a scene where Lara, with a melancholy expression on her face, burns a letter that she had written to Charlotte, since it doesn’t make sense to send the letter now that Charlotte is too ill to write back.

The movie also shows how the isolation and physical abuse that Lara is enduring has taken a toll on her mental health. In another scene, Lara is shown waving her left hand over a candle flame, until she deliberately lets the hand linger too long over the flame and she gets a minor burn.

The household gets a jolt from its usual monotony when a teenage girl (played by Devrim Lingnau), who’s around Lara’s age, is unexpectedly brought to the manor. She has been in a carriage accident, where she was the only passenger and the driver has died. The identity of this girl is a complete mystery.

A local physician named Doctor Renquist (played by Tobias Menzies) comes to the manor to examine this enigmatic girl and finds no visible injuries. However, she is mute. Is it because of the trauma of the accident or something else? The decision is made to keep this girl isolated in the house until she is well enough to speak and they can find out who her family is. Miss Tobias orders Lara to stay away from the girl.

Lara can’t understand why she can’t see or talk to this girl. In a private conversation with tells Miss Fontaine, Lara asks if the mystery girl is really Charlotte. Lara tells Miss Fontaine a theory that the girl might be Charlotte who could have miraculously recovered from her illness, and her carriage crashed in a rush to get to the manor.

Miss Fontaine firmly shuts down that theory because she says that if the girl were Charlotte, Lara’s father would have recognized her. This scene adeptly shows how Lara is so desperate for companionship that her imagination has gone wild about who this mystery girl might be. The expression on Miss Fontaine’s face is one of concern and dread.

Of course, the inevitable happens, and Lara visits the forbidden room where the mystery girl is. At first, the girl remains mute. But eventually, she shocks Lara by speaking to her. The girl still won’t say anything about who she is, including her name. Instead, she tells Lara that Lara can think of a name to call her. The mystery girl likes the name Carmilla, so they decide that will be her name.

Carmilla and Lara begin to meet in secret, and they become fast friends. Lara is entranced by Carmilla, who is a lot more worldly and sophisticated than Lara, even though Carmilla still withholds a lot of information about herself. And there’s a growing attraction between Lara and Carmilla that is more than platonic. They play games involving blood vows and breathing/air restriction that have not-so-subtle tones of eroticism, which is expressed when Lara and Carmilla begin kissing and and canoodling with each other.

Miss Fontaine senses that something has changed with Lara, because Lara is at an age when she will be curious about sex. The governess has also noticed how Lara is fascinated with the mystery girl in the home because Lara keeps wanting to talk to Miss Fontaine about the girl.

In a private conversation, Miss Fontaine decides to have a talk with Lara about sexuality without going into uncomfortable details. Miss Fontaine tells Lara that Lara will have certain feelings now that she’s becoming a young woman, but she must learn to control those feelings. The governess also opens up a little about her past (by hinting that she used to be promiscuous), by telling Lara that when she was younger, she got in trouble by acting on those feelings too much.

Miss Fontaine tells Lara that she wished that she knew when she was younger when she was acting on those feelings that all she really wanted was excitement. “Don’t confuse your feelings, Lara,” Miss Fontaine warns. “Don’t make the same mistakes I did.”

One of the best aspects of “Carmilla” is that it doesn’t just take the easy route of focusing mainly on the budding relationship between Lara and Carmilla. The movie also masterfully shows how a control-freak like Miss Fontaine isn’t in control of her own life as much as she’d like to pretend that she is. It’s a subtle commentary on the rigid roles that were forced upon women in society back then.

In many ways, this stern governess (who does not seem to have any family or friends) is just as stifled and isolated as Lara—perhaps even more so, because Miss Fontaine’s services in the Bauer household will no longer be needed when Lara becomes an adult. (And in those days, it was common for girls to get married at the age of 15 or 16.) And because Miss Fontaine is a childless spinster, she’s somewhat of an outcast herself in that society. Miss Fontaine has less options than Lara, whose family wealth makes Lara’s future more secure than Miss Fontaine’s.

But, for now, Miss Fontaine sees a lot of her younger self in Lara—and she doesn’t like what she sees. And there’s an unspoken power struggle between Miss Fontaine and Carmilla over Lara’s attention, which motivates certain choices that are made by the end of the story. This movie version of “Camilla” also has more overt messaging than the novella about homophobia and how religion can play a role in mistreating others who are “different.”

“Carmilla” presents a mesmerizing Gothic atmosphere, due in large part to top-notch work from cinematographer Michael Wood, composer Philip Selway, production designer Alexandra Walker (a “Harry Potter” film alum) and Oscar-winning costume designer John Bright (“A Room With a View”). Selway, who’s the drummer for Radiohead, has his original, appropriately haunting song “Ghosts” playing during the end credits. All three actresses in the “Carmilla” power struggle—Raine as Miss Fontaine, Lingnau (who makes her feature-film debut in “Carmilla”) as Carmilla and Rae as Lara—do a superb job in their roles.

Writer/director Harris should be commended for making “Carmilla” a movie worth seeing for anyone who likes to immerse themselves in a world that can be gorgeous to look at but menacing at the same time. People who want to see an exact replication of the original “Carmilla” novella might be disappointed. However, today’s movie audiences have certain over-the-top bloody expectations for vampire films that would not have served this movie well. Thankfully, the filmmakers of this “Carmilla” movie did not take that predictable route, which would have cheapened the message of this movie.

Film Movement released “Carmilla” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on July 17, 2020.