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)


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.

Review: ‘Vivarium,’ starring Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots

March 27, 2020

by Carla Hay

Jesse Eisenberg, Côme Thiry and Imogen Poots in “Vivarium” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate/Saban Films)


Directed by Lorcan Finnegan 

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in England, the sci-fi thriller “Vivarium” has an all-white cast representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: An unmarried couple who live together go to a mysterious housing development to look for a new home and find out that they can’t leave.

Culture Audience: “Vivarium” will appeal mostly to people who like unsettling suspense stories with a sci-fi angle.

Senan Jennings in “Vivarium” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate/Saban Films)

“Vivarium” is a somewhat haunting sci-fi thriller that’s meant to give people the creeps and/or anxiety throughout the entire film. The movie—directed by Lorcan Finnegan and written by Garret Shanley—is actually a very simple story that gets drawn out over approximately 97 minutes. The middle of the film has a very sluggish pace, but there’s enough of the story to keep people interested to find out what happens in the end.

In the beginning of “Vivarium,” there are startling images of hungry baby birds in nests, demanding to be fed by their parents. It’s a metaphor for what happens later in the story, which takes place in present-day England. Gemma Pierce (played by Imogen Poots) is a teacher at a primary school (which is called elementary school in the United States) to children who look about 5 or 6 years old. After school lets out for the day, one of the girl students finds two baby birds stomped to death near a tree in the school front lawn.

It’s here that viewers first see Gemma’s live-in American boyfriend Tom (played by Jesse Eisenberg), who climbs down from a ladder placed near the tree where the birds were found. It’s not made clear what Tom does for a living, but since this is one of the movie’s few scenes that’s set in the “outside world,” one can assume he works as a handyman at the school.

Tom and Gemma are looking for a house and they have an appointment at a real-estate company that wants to show them a new housing development in the area. When they arrive at the office, Gemma and Tom are greeted by a very creepy real-estate agent named Martin (played by Jonathan Aris), who has the kind of unblinking, crazy-eyed look that would make most people feel very uncomfortable. There’s something “off” about his mannerisms too: His smile is too fake, his way of talking seems unnatural, and at one point in the conversation, he mimics what Gemma says, almost as if he’s mocking her.

Tom senses that something isn’t quite right about Martin, and so Tom is a little reluctant to go any further in the inquiry about the house. However, Gemma (in an effort to be polite) indicates that she still wants to see the property. Against his better judgment (and since they arrived in the same car), Tom agrees to go with Gemma to get a tour of the house. They follow Martin (who drives in a separate car) to see the house where they might live.

The housing development is named Yonder, which Martin describes as “both tranquil and practical.” And it’s definitely a Stepford-type environment. All of the development’s green two-story houses and yards are identical to each other. Somehow, Tom and Gemma don’t notice that there is no one outside on the streets of this large neighborhood. It’s a major red flag of what’s to come.

Unfortunately, probably because of this film’s low budget, all of the exterior shots of the housing development looks very CGI fake. Once the characters are in the mysterious Yonder environment, it’s very obvious where the “green screen” is whenever there are scenes that are supposed to take place outside.

During a brief tour of the house, which has the number 9 as its address, Martin abruptly leaves Tom and Gemma at the house without a goodbye or any explanation. Gemma and Tom are ready to just write it off as a weird experience, so they get in their car to leave. But every time they try to find their way out of Yonder, they come right back to the house where they were. The bird’s eye view of the Yonder housing development also looks very CGI fake, like a video game.

This circling around the neighborhood goes on for quite a bit, as Tom argues with Gemma, demands to do the driving, and then he gets “lost” too. Gemma and Tom soon find out that they have no cell phone service. And as it starts to get dark, the car runs out of gas. In a major plot hole, Gemma and Tom don’t even try to see if anyone else is home who can help. Not that it would matter, since the movie’s entire plot is about them being stuck in this neighborhood with no one to help them get out.

Exhausted by their strange ordeal, they have no choice but to spend the night at the house. Tom and Gemma look in the house’s refrigerator and find it has a gift basket containing a bottle of champagne and strawberries, which Gemma and Tom consume since they have nothing else to eat and drink. Tom remarks that the strawberries have no taste.

The next day, Tom has the idea that he and Gemma should follow the direction of the sun to find their way out. They spend most of the day doing just that, climbing over neighbors’ fences and trekking through the streets. But to no avail. As it gets dark, the only house that they see with its lights on is the same No. 9 house that they were at in the beginning.

Then another strange thing happens: A box of food and other house essentials have mysteriously been delivered at the front of the house. (There’s no sign of who delivered the box.) Out of desperation, Tom (who’s a smoker) decides to use one of his cigarettes to light the house on fire, to see if anyone will notice the fire and call for help. Tom and Gemma watch nearby as the house burns to the ground, before they fall asleep.

When they wake up, Gemma and Tom are covered in ash. And the house has mysteriously appeared again, completely intact, as if the fire never happened. And then they get another box delivered to them. And what’s in the box sets in motion the rest of what happens to Tom and Gemma in the story.

The box has a baby boy in it, with a message: “Raise the child and be released.” Given that Gemma and Tom are stuck in this weird limbo environment, they basically don’t have a choice but to raise the child. (Côme Thiry plays the child as a baby.) The movie then fast forwards to 98 days later, and the baby has grown into what looks like a human boy who’s about 7 or 8 years old (played by Senan Jennings), thereby making it very clear to viewers that whoever Tom and Gemma are raising is definitely not human.

Tom is extremely resentful of the child, who has a tendency to randomly scream at the top of his lungs until he gets something. He always screams this way when he wants food, which is a nod to the bird scene that was shown in the beginning of the movie. One of the creepiest aspects of “Viviarium” is that the child (who doesn’t have a name) mimics what Tom and Gemma say in their own voices. The boy has a normal child’s voice, but more often than not, the voice that comes out when he speaks is a male or female adult voice.

Tom is quick to lose his temper and, at times, he deliberately abuses the child through physical assault and later by locking him in the car and refusing to give him food. Tom also refuses to call the child “he” and instead calls the child “it.” Gemma doesn’t like taking care of the child either, but she’s more patient than Tom is. In a scene that sums up their feelings about their forced parenting of this odd creature, Tom and Gemma both show the child their middle fingers in anger, and the child does the same. 

The middle section of the film somewhat drags down the pace of the story. There are repetitive scenes of the boy doing things that irritate Tom and Gemma. Although Tom wants to try and get rid of the boy in some way, Gemma can’t bring herself to do it, no matter how much she detests taking care of the boy.

At this point in the story, Tom has a distraction to keep him out of the house for long periods of time. He’s discovered, by flicking a cigarette on the front lawn, that the cigarette has burned a mysterious circle on the grass, which exposes the dirt on the ground. Tom begins digging the dirt and hears menacing sounds underneath. Digging as far as he can into the ground then becomes Tom’s obsession and takes up a great deal of his (and this movie’s) time. In one scene, Gemma speculates that the hole that Tom is digging will lead to hell. Tom replies, “No, we’re already there.”

Meanwhile, the boy who lives with them has been fixating on watching something bizarre on the house’s TV: black-and-white color patterns that look like psychedelic cell mutations. And in the house, Gemma finds a book that has strange coding and illustrations which are clues to what is possibly going on and what kind of being that she and Tom are raising.

“Vivarium” is by no means on the level of a Christopher Nolan sci-fi movie. A Nolan film has layers and layers of deep meaning that viewers will contemplate long after the movie is over. The ending of “Vivarium” actually explains exactly why all of this is happening to Tom and Gemma. The explanation is kind of basic and actually not all that surprising.

And because so much of “Vivarium” is repetitive (Tom and Gemma’s stir-crazy angst is pretty much 90% of the movie), the movie probably would’ve been better as a short film. However, if you’re looking for a movie to pass the time and give you some suspenseful chills, “Vivarium” should do the trick. Just don’t expect anything close to a masterpiece.

Lionsgate and Saban Films released “Vivarium” on digital and VOD on March 27, 2020. The film’s Blu-ray and DVD release is on May 12, 2020.

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