Directed by: Neil Jordan.
Written by: Moira Buffini based on her play.
Starring: Saoirse Ronan (Eleanor), Gemma Arterton (Clara), Caleb Landry Jones (Frank), Jonny Lee Miller (Ruthven), Sam Riley (Darvell), Daniel Mays (Noel), Uri Gavriel (Savella), Caroline Johns (Young Clara), Maria Doyle Kennedy (Morag), Tom Hollander (Teacher).
“Hey! Vampires are cool outsiders who love girls who hate cheerleaders!" So says Simpsons guest star Sarah Silverman, playing a 10 year old girl, when Bart mocks her for reading “Red Moon” saying vampires should be all about “biting neck”. Sadly, Silverman’s line pretty much sums up what has happened to the vampire genre in the past few years – due mainly to Twilight – but a few TV shows as well (and sadly, this looks to continue – I cannot be the only one who cringed all through the preview for the upcoming movie The Vampire Academy, right?). So it’s with some relief that Neil Jordan’s Byzantium turns vampires into blood thirsty monsters once again – at least somewhat. There are healthy doses of sexuality running through Byzantium – all thanks to the scantily clad Gemma Arterton – but she simply uses her sexuality to get what she wants. Sadly, however, it must be said that while I appreciate what the film tries to do – it still isn’t very good.
The centuries spanning film opens in modern day England – a small, rundown coastal town to be precise. This is where Clara (Arterton) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) have had to flee, because once again, Clara has screwed up their living situation – killing someone she shouldn’t have. They are mother and daughter vampires (the lack of much of an age difference is explained – eventually), although they are very different. Clara finds work in the sex trade – stripping, or as she does in this new town, starting a brothel with bored prostitutes (a comic highlight has one of them checking their phone while “with” a client). Despite her age, Eleanor is still basically a teenager – she attends school, and seems almost naïve about everything. While Clara has no qualms about wetting her appetite with whoever is around, Eleanor sees herself as an angel of mercy – only killing people who are going to die anyway – mostly slow, painful deaths.
The movie flashes back and forth in time to show how Clara and Eleanor ended up being turned into vampires in the first place, and their lives back in the present – with Eleanor’s strange courtship with Frank (Caleb Landry Jones, doing the same kind of monotone brooding that ruined Brandon Cronenberg’s Antiviral), the constant threat of being exposed for what they are – that Eleanor seems to crave. The men in Byzantium either seem to be sad sack losers – like Frank, or the pathetic Noel (Daniel Mays), owner of the rundown hotel Clara turns into a whorehouse, or else cruel, like Jonny Lee Miller’s Ruthven, who sets both mother and daughter down their eventual paths in the flashbacks.
The movie tries to bring complexity to the movie – drawing lines between prostitutes and vampires – but in actuality, the film is too often morose and overly brooding. Jordan directed Interview with the Vampire way back in 1994, and this film recalls that one in several ways – mostly in Ronan’s brooding performance. However that film was at least smart enough to know that a vampire who has been alive for years, even if trapped in the body of a prepubescent Kristen Dunst, would not be naïve. Ronan has the right look to play a vampire – and she gamely tries – but I never quite understood why someone who has been alive for two centuries could still be as naïve as her character is.
Arterton, however, adds much needed life to the movie. Her kills, in contrast to Ronan’s, are bloody and inventively staged by Jordan. She uses her sexual wiles to get whatever she wants. It is a full blooded performance by an actress I didn’t think was very good until I saw the movie.
It is somewhat refreshing to see women cast in the lead roles here – and not have them be passive observers in their own story, unlike in Twilight. Yet the movie is still too serious – too broody, without the story to really back all that up. There are moments where it comes alive, but overall, Byzantium is a drab vampire movie that goes nowhere.