A 19th century classic kept in period but addressed to 21st century viewers.



Sheridan Le Fanu's gothic novella on which this film is based appeared in 1872. Not only was it a tale about a vampire that appeared well over twenty years ahead of Dracula but there is a wide belief that it influenced Henry James when he came to write The Turn of the Screw. Since I do not know the original, it was the strong pre-echoes of the famous James story, the basis of Britten's opera and of Jack Clayton's film The Innocents (1961), that intrigued me when watching this film written and directed by Emily Harris. For here too is a tale about a governess (Jessica Raine) who becomes fearful for her charge - in this case the 15-year-old Lara (Hannah Rae) - and who ultimately in the absence of her employer, the widower who is Lara's father (Greg Wise), takes drastic action to protect the child against what she believes to be an evil, supernatural force. In this instance that force is represented by a stranger brought into the house after suffering a serious coach accident nearby: this is the titular figure played by Devrim Lingnau. In the eyes of the governess Carmilla appears to be a vampire responsible for deaths in the area and now a threat to Lara herself and all the more so because in bonding and bringing the girl close to her Carmilla's lesbian instincts play a significant part.


Harris in this first feature to be both written and directed by her has given us a work with a distinctive character often consciously unforced in pace and more interested in budding sensuality than in horror, although the latter does play a part both in the story's resolution and in a gory nightmare dream sequence. Like The Turn of the Screw, this is a work of deliberate ambiguity in which fears of sex play a key role in encouraging a belief that supernatural powers are at work. Being a tale created in the 19th century, its linking of lesbianism with the works of the devil may originally have encouraged a response alien to modern views, but Harris is careful to let the ambiguities allow us to see this as a story of victimisation in an age when same sex love was an anathema (Carmilla is not a celebration of a love condemned by society in the manner of CĂ©line Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire but even so there are parallels that can be drawn between them).


Harris's adaptation, which changes the original location and sets the tale in England, will not suit all tastes and it is hardly surprising that as a relative newcomer she has given us a work that lacks the assurance of The Innocents. Even so, Camilla remains absolutely consistent in its approach throughout and has a character of its own. In a cast totally loyal to the enterprise, Devrim Lingnau's Carmilla is particularly well realised. This is in no way a major film, but the right audience will regard it as a work that largely achieves what it set out to do.




Cast: Jessica Raine, Tobias Menzies, Greg Wise, Hannah Rae, Devrim Lingnau, Scott Silven, Lorna Gayle, Daniel Tuite.


Dir Emily Harris, Pro Lizzie Brown and Emily Precious, Screenplay Emily Harris with Sean McConaghy, based on the novella by J. Sheridan Le Fanu, Ph Michael Wood, Pro Des Alexandra Walker, Ed Rebecca Lloyd, Music Philip Selway, Costumes John Bright.


Tilly Films/Altitude Film Entertainment/Bird Flight Films/Fred Films-Republic Film.
94 mins. UK. 2018. Rel: 16 October 2020. Cert. 15.