Review of “Carmilla” (2019)

In character, “lesbian gothic vampire novel” is directly down my desired path in media. When the SNF Parkway added Carmilla to its virtual theater, I just had to watch it for myself. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect of this particular interpretation, but I somehow walked away disappointed.

The plot of the film is fairly straightforward, and I’ll avoid any major spoilers that aren’t already well established, especially since most of the main issues are not with the plot itself but in its execution. Our main character is Lara (played by Hannah Rae), a sheltered but fairly well-off Christian girl from a gloomy English village. Her live-in tutor, Miss Fontaine (played by Jessica Raine), looks after her, acting as a sort of elder sister and guide. Lara is established to be a forward-thinking young woman, stealing her father’s (played by Greg Wise) medical textbooks and studying them in secret. Though it’s clear Lara is struggling with loneliness and craves a companion, her hopes are dashed when news comes that a family friend’s niece has likely died and is therefore unable to live with the family. Shortly after, a carriage accident on the edges of the property takes place in the middle of the night, and its sole survivor is a girl around Lara’s age- a girl who is awake but cannot speak. Shortly thereafter, the girl becomes attached to Lara and further strange incidences around town take place. Lara and Carmilla’s relationship grows fonder, but soon oddities cannot be ignored by those witnessing what’s happening.

I’ve seen this film be described as “atmospheric”, and while it’s technically accurate, it’s more accurate to call it extraordinarily slow. My own definition of atmospheric would be Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which allows the viewer to absolutely drown in a rich, established, and choreographed world-building. The closest Emily Harris’ Carmilla comes to this is some close-ups of insects burrowing in the dirt, and making extremely loud “creepy” noises. These images take place at least four times throughout this movie and have no real relevance to the plot, the point, or the theme of the film. Despite clocking in at 94 minutes, this movie feels probably twice as long, with many scenes simply being drawn out for as much time as possible. Given the rather simplistic and pared down version of events in comparison to the novel, it makes sense as to why, but it causes the runtime to really feel as though it’s wasting time to reach that 90 minute marker.

As this film already takes multiple artistic liberties from the source material, it’s genuinely perplexing why the relationship between the two girls still feels as though it’s underdeveloped. There are many more scenes of Carmilla taking time to expand Lara’s worldview, but really nothing to develop their chemistry in terms of scale and investment. Instead of adding more scenes and content showing Lara’s individual increasing attraction to Carmilla’s broadening techniques, instead we just get Carmilla leading her someplace in the night and then a scolding from Miss Fontaine in the daytime. Multiple scenes involve Miss Fontaine, who serves as the General’s equivalent character from the novel, but only advance a plot point that suspects Carmilla is a vampire rather than finding any form of legitimate evidence. In fact, we are only ever told through dialogue that other girls in town are sick, and we never even really see Carmilla sneaking away from the house at night on her own. Why do we never see what these other girls are supposedly encountering that is allegedly similar to Lara? Why do we not even have a scene of Carmilla running from the house in the middle of the night and away from Lara only to return before sunrise? Why are we just told events are taking place rather than being shown things happening? Surely, there could have been depictions of girls without simply revealing that Carmilla was responsible for their health worsening. No actor would even need to speak, necessarily- you could just show them asleep in bed and in make-up that mirrors Lara’s own health problems.

That isn’t to say that there are no redeeming qualities of this film, but they are so mediocre when they could easily have been made great. The chemistry between Lara and Carmilla still feels very organic and fun to watch, even if the payoff is nowhere near worth it in the end. While some shot composition is definitely eerie and mysterious, there are a number of uses of handicam that are distractingly out of place and disrupt the tone of the rest of the film. There was good work incorporating time period accurate lighting into the sets, as scenes are only light with either natural light or candles, making the film at least feel authentic to its time period.

Attempting to describe this film is frustrating, as it’s one that made me wish I could enjoy it more, and its flaws are not excruciating- but it simply does nothing extraordinary. Had it been a film that was as atmospheric as described, I likely would have enjoyed it a lot more. As it stands, it’s a film that is largely forgettable, especially amongst the other interpretations of Carmilla out there. I give this film a 5 out of 10.

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