A film review by Craig J. Koban November 22, 2013


2013, R, 118 mins.


Saoirse Ronan as Eleanor Webb  /  Gemma Arterton as Clara Webb  /  Sam Riley as Darvell  /  Caleb Landry Jones as Frank  /  Warren Brown as Gareth  /  Thure Lindhardt as Werner

Directed by Neil Jordan  /  Written by Moira Buffini

If any of you, like me, have been thinking lately that vampire fiction has been given an unceremonious kick to the cinematic curb, then a film like Neil Jordan’s BYZANTIUM just might alleviate some of your apathy.  

Films like the TWILIGHT series – high on sparkling bloodsuckers and eye rolling teen melodrama – seem to have all but eroded the more classic conceits of vampire lore.  What BYZANTIUM does – much like, say, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN – is to return the genre back to focusing on the inherent sadness and tragedy that befalls the vampire and, in turn, restores the psychological grit and compelling depth that has been sorely lacking in films like it as of late.  Beyond that, the film makes for a highly intriguing companion piece to Jordan’s own 1994 INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE, albeit this time he's working on a more muted budget and with less grandiose flourishes. 

These types of films always seem to hone in on male characters, so one of the more refreshing angles to BYZANTIUM is that it’s a vampire tale with a strong feminist slant while still imbuing the story with centuries old folklore and history.  The vampires in question are a mother and daughter duo, Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), who have been on the run for nearly two centuries after they  became members of the largely male undead fraternity.  , Clara, the mother, has managed to eek our a meager living by working as a lowly prostitute, which, considering that she’s pushing two hundred years old, gives new added meaning to the phrase “world’s oldest profession.”  

Clara manages to coerce a rather sad and distraught man (Daniel Mays) into letting both her and her daughter stay in his recently inherited Byzantium hotel, where she hopes to transform it into a profitable brothel.  Clara’s daughter, on the other hand, seems more perpetually melancholic.  She’s doomed to forever remain as a 16-year-old.  She spends her time writing down her story of how she came to be, which is spurned on by the fact that she takes a writing class at a local college.  While there she begins to fall for Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), a very socially shy leukemia sufferer who’s not initially wise to Eleanor’s secret.  Yet, the more time Frank spends with her, the more he begins to see the truth, especially when reports of mysterious disappearances and deaths begin to pile up in their coastal town.   



BYZANTIUM screenwriter Moira Buffini – adapting her very own play A VAMPIRE STORY – does a superb job of framing the women’s contemporary story with that of their past history.  The film weaves back and forth from the present to the past, as we learn of how Eleanor and Clara were forced into prostitution during the Napoleonic Wars and how their conversion into vampires placed them at odds with the male vampires of their time, who all wish them dead to restore the gender purity of their kind.  One of the most fascinating subtexts to BYZANTIUM is how it not only embellishes the inherent sadness of the vampire’s fate, but also how it evokes the trauma of the two women being on the run for so very long.  It’s one thing to be a vampire that’s immortal and can’t die, but it’s a whole other lonely and anxiety plagued existence when you can’t even be with your own kind.  Now that’s isolation. 

Even better is that Jordan and Buffini focus on character dynamics and storytelling first and bloodletting and gore a distant second (granted, the film does have its moments of shockingly gruesome kills that may even have vampire aficionados turning their head in horror).  Whereas INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE had a more wanton theatricality and was operatic in mood and design, BYZANTIUM is much more subtle and low key.  The film does maintain certain classical aspects of vampire mythology (like the notion that a vampire must be invited into their prey’s home in order to feed off of them), but noticeably absent are other troupes, like vulnerability to sunlight.  Interestingly, these vampires don’t sport fangs, but rather razor sharp thumbnails that their can grow out like Wolverine’s claws to puncture their victims.  In a relative age when we feel like we have seen everything that vampire films have to offer us, it’s invigorating to see BYZANTIUM at least try to buck the status quo. 

Jordan has always been a director that has the faculty to cultivate strong performances from his lead actors, and he certainly does so here.  Gemma Arterton arguably gives one of her best performances as Clara, whose physical sex appeal is used as a front to lure in her unsuspecting victims.  Saoirse Ronan is pitch perfectly cast as her adolescent vampire; she has a clean, porcelain natural beauty and brooding, piercing blue eyes that makes it easy to believe that she’s an emotionally wounded figure with centuries of anxiety built up from within.  I also like atypical casting of Caleb Laundry Jones as her love interest: He’s not a beefy pretty boy that so often dominates teen romance films, but rather a gangly, pale, a fragile figure that’s charming because of his peculiarity.  Whereas Bella and Edward felt like wooden puppets at the service of a script on autopilot in the TWILIGHT films, Eleanor and Frank’s love story feels more authentically rendered because we invest more thoroughly in them as well rounded characters. 

For a vampire flick done on the relative cheap, BYZANTIUM still looks reasonably great, thanks to Consolota Boyle’s costumes, Simon Elliot’s production design, and the evocatively haunting cinematography of Simon Elliott (who has worked before on many of Steve McQueen’s films like HUNGER), all of which flow together to make Jordan’s tale simmer with a dark and macabre beauty.  The film has a visual and narrative ambition in the way it creates thoroughly vivid flashbacks the journey 200 years into the past and back again to the present, which gives the story an added layer of epic scale that might not have otherwise been there.  The sad tale of Eleanor and Clara’s existence deserves an equally cold and harsh looking aesthetic, and Jordan seems more than equal to the task here. 

BYZANTIUM culminates in an extended obligatory chase, during which time Clara and Eleanor must evade capture and certain death at the hands of those pesky, woman-vampire-hating men that have journeyed for hundreds of years to get their comeuppance.  The third act here feels a bit too perfunctory, considering the film’s stimulating build up towards it.  Alas, those are but minor quibbles, as BYZANTIUM rightfully returns the vampire genre back to a time when these creatures were not handsome suitors at the mercy of young adult romance literature.  Jordan knows that the key allure of the vampire is not their ethereally sexiness, but rather the intolerable burden of being everlastingly alone and living indefinitely…and keeping it a secret from everyone.  As Eleanor sorrowfully relays at one point in the film, “My story can never be told.  I remember everything.  It’s a burden.”  What a sad, sad creature.   

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