If only all debut films were like this: story, style and substance. Emily Harris’s debut feature, Carmilla, is a striking and sensual treat for both the ears and eyes. It is a very smart and intriguing coming of age story set in the past that feels surprisingly modern.
Lara (Hannah Rae), 15 years old, lives with her widowed father, Mr Bauer (Greg Wise) and strict governess, Miss Fontaine (Jessica Raine). Her days are spent in the ways of young ladies in the Victorian era picking flowers, reciting poetry. The first we learn of potential evil is the fact that her governess insists on tying Lara’s left hand behind her back in order to make her right one the dominant. When there is a mysterious carriage crash in the night, a young woman is brought into their house whom Lara names Carmilla (Devrim Lingnau). All is not what it seems where Carmilla is concerned and it leads to an awakening in Lara and a reckoning for the adults in the house.
Writer and Director, Emily Harris took Fanu’s Victorian gothic and transported it to England. This is a story with feminist ideas that are subtly told without detracting from the story. What is the purpose of a flower? “To look pretty”, Lara replies. Her governess corrects her and says it has a purpose. The metaphor is clear: young women are more than beautiful objects. Again, when the governess suspects Lara’s growing feelings for Carmilla she tells her “don’t refuse your feelings, Lara.” Here an older woman not wanting a younger woman to deny herself, as she clearly had, to fit into a man’s world. It feels refreshingly modern.
Harris’s direction is good although certain dramatic scenes linger than they should, more brutal editing was required. Cinematography is often overlooked but it is a film like this using candlelight to lend authenticity to the time period that shows how important that role is. Michael Wood really helps to bring Harris’s vision of that world to screen. It is sumptuous and evocative. There are scenes that look like paintings, one such is where Lara is praying with her governess. The intercutting of the nature scenes to mirror the storyline from beauty to death is ingenious.
Debut features require the director to have something to say. Mercifully, Emily Harris has a lot to say in Carmilla. If any criticism can be made is that she is rather too restrained, sometimes it needed to be gutsy. Clearly, she wants to highlight the different types of love by contrasting the rough sexual tension between the doctor (Tobias Menzies) and his interest in Miss Fontaine versus the delicate love between the central characters of Lara and Carmilla. The cast is excellent and the two younger female actresses but it is Jessica Raine as the governess who holds this film together. Tobias Menzies when he is on the screen brings an added dimension to the story and his scenes with Jessica Raine are a delight.
To describe Carmilla, as a lesbian vampire film, would be to deny the lyricism of this film. It is far removed from that. This is a coming of age story that puts women front and centre. The male characters are remote even when present. Harris shows them as emotionally inferior even though they are the ones that hold positions of power in society. The beating heart of the film is whether Carmilla’s really a vampire or merely a woman that’s chosen to live and hold beliefs according to her own rules? This is an interesting and refreshingly modern take on that period: women have always had the power. Men have feared that and therefore tried to subjugate them rather than try and understand them. Never fear, all this is told subtly and interlaced through the film by actions or phrases.
Carmilla is released in cinemas and on VOD in the UK on Friday 16 October.