Edinburgh International Film Festival

Carmilla (2019)

Starring: Hannah Rae, Devrim Lingnau, Jessica Raine, Greg Wise, Tobias Menzies

Directed by: Emily Harris

Rating: 1 2 3 4

Sheridan Le Fanu's story 'Carmilla' introduced the world to the female vampire, and set the standard for every vamp that followed, from Countess Dracula to Daughters of Darkness, Catherine Deneuve's Miriam Blaylock to Grace Jones's Katrina: a predatory female fatale, often preying on her own sex. But if you're expecting a lurid, sexed-up blood fest then you'll be disappointed, as Emily Harris's adaptation owes far more to the lo-fi British folkiness of Blood On Satan's Claw or the raw coming-of age-tragedy of Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights than it does to Hammer Horror.

The year is 17-something-Poldark-time and our heroine is Lara (Hannah Rae), an naive beauty on the edge of 17, trapped in a creaky old house buried in the countryside with her father (Greg Wise) and repressed, controlling governess-with-a-secret-past Miss Fontaine (Jessica Raine). Isolated, bored and morbidly obsessed by her father's anatomy books, Lara has grown up surrounded by fields rich in nature in all its verdant, fertile, icky glory, yet she herself is considered unnatural for being left-handed, spending portions of the movie with her southpaw bound behind her back to train her out of using it. 

Bitterly disappointed when a friend falls ill and is unable to come and stay with her and alleviate her loneliness, she's intrigued and elated when a midnight carriage crash deposits a mysterious young girl into the household. This stranger is Carmilla (Devrim Lingnau), and her arrival will change everything.

Hannah Rae as Lara and Devrim Lingnau as Carmilla in Carmilla

Shot largely in close-up, with characters trussed up in corsets and pooled in candlelight, the film has an intense, claustrophobic atmosphere that further strengthens the theme of cloying repression. 

Yet the blossoming of stifled teenage passion is not the only theme developed here. Speaking after the premiere, Harris explains that she saw in Le Fanu's tale a message about fear of the other – a common trope in vampire films and literature (isn't Dracula the archetypal foreign oligarch, coming over here, stealing our women and buying up our prime real estate?) Yet this theme is dealt with particularly sensitively and affectingly here. As Lara's attachment and attraction to the cool, sensual stranger grows, so too do the suspicions of Miss Fontaine and the family doctor (Outlander's Tobias Menzies). And the conclusion they reach as to her 'unnatural' nature results in a horrific climax...

All in all a masterful piece of work, and an unusual, thought-provoking addition to the vampire canon. A must-see for anyone interested in literary adaptations, hidden women's stories or blood-sucking vamps... 

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