Lewes and Plumpton locations feature in love story/eerie mystery Carmilla

A 16th-century Plumpton manor house is the key location in the new film Carmilla which gets a cinema release on October 16 – the day it also gets a premiere at Lewes’ Depot Cinema. Directed by Emily Harris, who is the V&A’s curator of theatre and performance, it was shot in and around Lewes and Plumpton.

Tuesday, 13th October 2020, 10:00 am
Carmilla: photo by Nick Wall
Carmilla: photo by Nick Wall

It is also showing at Horsham's Capitol (Fri 16 - Thu 22 Oct).

“The manor house was a place with real history, as you would expect with a manor house that age,” Emily says. “It has been owned by various interesting people over the years, and actualy the location and the conception of the piece came at the same time. I was able to spend time in the location and to write the script. Parts of the film are very specific, written inspired by the location.”

Emily describes the film as an atmospheric, coming-of-age love story steeped in eerie mystery, a reimagining of Sheridan Le Fanu’s 19th-century novella of the same name. 15-year-old Lara (Hannah Rae) lives with her father (Greg Wise) and her strict governess, Miss Fontaine (Jessica Raine), in total isolation and is struggling to find an outlet for her curiosity and burgeoning sexuality. When a carriage crash nearby brings a young girl into the family home to recuperate, Lara is enchanted by the eponymous Carmilla (Devrim Lingnau).

“It is based on the novella, but it is an adaptation, and I was able to step away from the supernatural tropes to get to the human psychology underneath. Rather than looking at the surface supernaturalism, I was trying to understand what the original literature was trying to say about the human condition so I had a degree of freedom.

“There have been other versions of Carmilla. It seems to be a work that has attracted artists and film-makers over the years, and I think when you are offering an interpretation, you have got to try to find something new to say.”

The Plumpton manor house was central: “The person that gave us this location mentioned this book that had been special to him as a teenager. He felt that if ever we wanted to do a version, he had the perfect location. Those circumstances made it really special.”

The film was made a couple of years ago: “The filming went really, really well. We had an amazing time. These things are never easy. All films have so many variables. There is never enough money; there is never enough time. But one of the advantages with this was that everyone was able to live in and around the location, which made it feel really focused. Nobody was having to split their mindset.

“It is a coming-of-age love story set in the 1790s against the backdrop of a time when religion was the base of everything in terms of how people navigated their lives. In this house there is this young girl Lara who is being raised by her father and her governess. She is being brought up very comfortably, but she is very isolated. She has no immediate neighbours or friends.

“When the film starts, Lara was supposed to have a companion coming for the summer, but she is taken ill and can’t come. But there is a carriage crash not far from them. The driver is killed and there is another girl who is taken in and is taken care of – and they try to find her family. It turns out the two girls become really good friends, but the grown-ups around them grow more and more suspicious. There are rumours that there might be something supernatural going on. Suspicion and jealousy take over and they start to demonise this girl. What happens next you will have to see the film, but it’s about bringing to the surface the fact that we tend to demonise the other, something that we don’t understand… and that these prejudices that emerge can be all-consuming.”

The film was due to come out in March, the same date as the new Bond film. Emily is delighted that it didn’t just go straight to video on demand.

“In terms of the artistry, I think it is a film that needs to be seen in a darkened room on a big screen. It has got a really intricate sound design that needs that together kind of experience.”