2013, R, 118 mins.
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.