For someone whose interests very much fall across the categories of queer and gothic, I have to admit that I have been fairly ignorant of the centuries long prevalence of the Carmilla story. You would think that a lesbian vampire tale that predates Bram Stoker’s Dracula would have piqued my interest at some point along the course of an entire English Literature degree, but here I am, with no previous experience in any format of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 novella.
As it turns out, this 2019 adaptation was probably not the best place to start. Written and directed by Emily Harris, this new version of Carmilla stars Hannah Rae as Lara, a fifteen year old girl in the late 18th century who begins to break from the strict confines of her family home when she begins an intense relationship with Carmilla (Devrim Lingnau), a young woman who is recovering from a carriage crash under the care of Lara’s father (Greg Wise) and governess (Jessica Raine).
In what feels like a very bold choice, filmmaker Harris has decided to scale back the supernatural elements of the plot to an absolute minimum, choosing instead a more humanistic approach that turns the story from a ‘lesbian vampire’ romp into a well, just a lesbian romp. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for that kind of narrative when executed well, but there is just something about this grounded version of Carmilla that feels odd. I’m not quite sure how to express my feelings, but by removing the supernatural menace, what gets left behind is a plot that pretty much just villainizes the very act of same sex attraction rather than the sinister mysticism that it was originally veiled in.
I totally understand the creative desire to switch things up when adapting a centuries old story, but it very much feels like the magic and spark of the traditional Carmilla narrative has been stripped away here and replaced with something that, whilst exploring some interesting religious angles, just doesn’t feel particularly intriguing.
Running at a brisk ninety minutes, nothing in the film feels developed enough to pack the big emotional punches that the narrative climax intends. Everything feels uncomfortably rushed from start to finish, and as a viewer you are not given nearly enough time to invest in the bond between Lara and Carmilla before the wheels of the tragic plot start to turn at full speed. The atmosphere and tone of something deliciously gothic are there, but there is just something about the final product that feels decidedly bland given the subject matter. Whether a supernatural sapphic monster tale or simply a clandestine lesbian romance, Carmilla needed to be much more arresting all round.
Perhaps most damaging to the cause is the fact that, with maybe one exception, I found the performances to be underwhelming across the board. As Lara and Carmilla, Hannah Rae and Devrim Lingnau don’t strike any kind of exciting chemistry, and at times you really can feel the ‘scriptness’ of things rather than anything natural or authentic. As the plot barrels towards tragedy it really requires an audience to be invested in the connection between the two characters, but sadly I didn’t feel moved by it at any point.
The one exception I hinted at above is Jessica Raine as governess Miss Fontaine. Head and shoulders above the rest of the cast in terms of performance quality, Raines’ take on Miss Fontaine is one filled with inner turmoil. Deeply conflicted between a desire to control Lara’s burgeoning sexuality whilst also fighting her own separate desires, Miss Fontaine is the only character in the narrative that I felt had anything interesting going on. There are some moments of genuine dramatic tension conjured by Raine and Rae, but these are pretty much all confined to the opening stages of the film. Ultimately, it starts out fairly strong, and goes downhill from there.
Overall, this vampire-less adaptation of a classic vampire tale doesn’t really hit the spot for me. When you remove the supernatural side of things, Carmilla becomes a bleak drama that results not in an a cathartic exorcism but rather a hate crime, and the whole thing just doesn’t feel particularly worth it to me.