Young Lara Bauer is too curious by far, her mind yearning for stimulation, her soul yearning for companionship beyond the stern tutelage of her governess Miss Fontaine and the distant affection of her often absent father. Encumbered with an affliction, a weakness of spirit which could entice her towards sin should it not be controlled, Miss Fontaine periodically binds Lara’s dominant left hand behind her back in order to force her to use her right hand.
Yet Lara is wilful and difficult to restrain, secretly removing books from her father’s library and reading them by candlelight, anatomical texts unseemly for the eyes of a lady. Miss Fontaine punishes her, determined to beat the devil out, but when a carriage crashes near the house in the middle of the night with a sole survivor, an unconscious girl of Lara’s age, something far worse is invited in with the best of intentions.
With its world premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, Carmilla is written and directed by Emily Harris, an adaptation of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 Gothic romance novella, one of the earliest modern western vampire texts, predating Bram Stoker’s better-known work by a quarter of a century upon which it was a strong influence.
Broadchurch‘s Hannah Rae is Lara, her prim obedience and conditioned deference barely concealing the wanton energy beneath, while Immortality‘s Devrim Lingnau is the girl whom Lara is forbidden to see until she is recuperated, unable to recall her name or her past and choosing the name Carmilla at Lara’s suggestion.
The first step in a friendship of intense depth and intimacy, it will shock the adults around them with its depravity, Miss Fontaine (An Adventure in Space and Time‘s Jessica Raine), Mr Bauer (Strange Angel‘s Greg Wise) and family physician Doctor Renquist (Outlander‘s Tobias Menzies).
Faithful in setting and situation to Le Fanu’s source material though streamlined to concentrate on the immediate events rather than the elaborate backstory of Carmilla and her multiple identities through history, this allows the interpretation that Miss Fontaine’s actions are driven by superstition and religious fervour rather than rational evidence.
Presented here as a glorious period production of sunlit days and candlelit nights, it seems there is always a summer storm brewing just beyond the horizon, a pressure that builds and itches the skin of the characters in their tightly-drawn corsets and high-buttoned collars, Carmilla’s invitation to moonlit skinny-dipping an exotic temptation by which Lara is helplessly mesmerised.
Harris building the film around the contrasting performances of Rae and Lingnau, she similarly contrasts the two worlds in which Lara exists, one formal and dominated by elocution and afternoon tea, the other her fascination with nature, of flowers and fruits and the insects that thrive on the decay beneath the surface when the leaves are pushed aside, the blood that nourishes all living beauty.