Young Eleanor looks like your typical moody teenage girl on the outside; she mopes from room to room, and spends hours writing urgently only to crumple and discard the pages afterwards. What sets her apart from your typical young adult protagonist is that she’s really a two centuries old vampire struggling to control her nature. Judy Blume’s characters only had to worry about blood once a month, while Eleanor must contend every day with the fact she’s wired to drink it straight from the veins of others.
In Neil Jordan’s neo-gothic drama Byzantium, the melancholy Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) is accompanied by the buxom, beguiling Clara (Gemma Arterton), a spitfire tart who’s ridiculously vibrant given that she’s spent the lion’s share of the last 200 years working as a prostitute. Although the two women look like they are less than a decade apart, Clara is in fact Eleanor’s mother. Together they live a transient life scouring the boardwalks and fairgrounds of beach-towns, on the run from shadowy pursuers who are hunting them both. Each has their own way of collecting the blood that sustains them; Eleanor visits those who are ready to die, the old and infirmed, and comes as an angel of mercy while Clara feeds off vile pimps and, if she’s desperate, unlucky johns. Together they have carved out a life of sorts, but Eleanor balks at the lengths Clara is willing to go for their survival, and secretly yearns for a world she’s become a stranger in.
Jordan has grown as a filmmaker in the nearly twenty years since 1994’s Interview with a Vampire, and this maturity as an artist is evident in Byzantium, which functions less like a horror movie and more a dark coming of age tale that just happens to involve vampires. A master of visual compositions, Jordan bolsters the film in a decaying reality that provides grand excess in the midst of rot. Sean Bobit’s cinematography etches the present day sections of the film with a lonely, contemplative vibe, an overcast evocation of our modern world that is intercut with parallel depictions of a 19th century brothel and a monastery; the former being the scene of Clara’s first transition to a creature of the night, and the latter Clara’s gifted rescue for her daughter, providing an upbringing of refinement and moral resolve.
Imagery is such an integral part of Byzantium, and Jordan injects the strong themes of writer Moira Buffini’s script (adapted from her play ‘A Vampire’s Story) directly into the film’s aesthetic DNA. The titular moldering hotel, Byzantium, owned by sad-sack Noel (Daniel Mays) after the passing of his mother, becomes the safe haven of the vampire duo, and a makeshift brothel that allows Clara to conduct business without exposing herself to the pursuers chasing them. This lush, gothic monstrosity becomes an outward expression of Buffini’s clever, emphatic spin on the vampire mythos; the ragged, art-deco architecture epitomizes a world of confining structures and superficial beauty, and Jordan’s women wander its halls in either ravishing, ruby-red evening gowns or crimson hooded jackets that make them look like vibrant flashes of life and color amidst a crumbling hierarchy.
The haunting chilly sea-side Irish town that hides mother and daughter is imagined by Jordan as a shadowy, noir-inspired empty shell; the living that wander this nondescript landscape possess less vitality than the two undead hiding amongst them. The flashbacks to Clara’s forced induction to prostitution are envisioned with a damp opulence, and her ravishing and subsequent spoiling at the hands of the vile captain Rothven (Jonny Lee Miller) is juxtaposed expertly against her transition to a ‘sucreant’, Byzantium’s term for vampirism. The first experience is awash in sinister darkness and defiled innocence, and the second, unfolding in a secret cave on a sunlit, tropical island, embodies triumph and freedom.
Byzantium doesn’t coast on its sensory pleasures but roots its story in two mesmerizing performances. Ronan, as Eleanor, is completely plausible as an old soul confined within a fresh frame, but she’s also convincing as an emotionally stunted ‘girl’ who has been dodging womanhood for two lifetimes. As the vampire, who uses her fingernail to draw blood instead of the classic fang, Ronan conjures a predator held at bay by mercy and compassion, and she’s taken her fantastic turns in Hanna and Atonement and merged them to conjure up Eleanor. Her furtive, cautious courtship of an ailing young man in the village (an effective Caleb Landry Jones) adds an interesting facet to her character, and its understated yearning is a clever contrast to the tumultuous relationship Eleanor has with her mother.
In the hands—and lips, and legs and breasts—of Gemma Arterton, Clara leaps to bloody, bewildering life. This is not a sexist observation, but an accurate one; Arterton, who can play demure and sweet and refined with organic ease, throws her entire physical self into Clara, who is the world’s oldest sex worker, having a very, very long time to tune her immortally supple frame to a place of constant allure. From her signature pouts, smoldering glances and calibrated pivot, Arterton reveals to us a woman who has used both of her curses to the sole end of giving her daughter the best life possible.
So many vampire films run on sex, but Byzantium is different; it’s surprisingly chaste in its imagery, considering it’s a story about a saucy bloodsucker running a whorehouse. This is down entirely to Arterton, who sizzles without the need for elaborate scenes of copulation, and whose sexiness is an act hiding Clara’s weary, heart-broken sadness. When she does attack in the film’s bloodier scenes, Arterton is honestly imposing, her lithe figure adopting a panther’s poise, whether draining a low-life at the end of the pier or honing in on Tom Hollander’s benevolent professor. What makes her performance so good is that she constantly to refuses to be a placid object of lust, biting back at the exact moment one lets their guard down. Her camaraderie and maternal warmth for Ronan solidifies Byzantium even when the film itself is threatening to derail.
Despite great design, a clever twist on the mythos, and captivating performances, Byzantium doesn’t quite become the sum of its parts; it’s undoubtedly a solid and refreshing take on vampires in a time when the concept has been staked to death, but at some point all of Jordan’s ephemera keeps us from properly connecting with the emotional side of the story. There’s much to admire and enjoy, and plenty to think about when the picture is over, but somewhere along the way the story of Eleanor and Clara gets overrun by the persistent invasion of the oppressing forces of their world. The vampire segments are enticing, but they don’t always feel necessary, and Jordan spends too much time in the past, with Miller’s abhorrent captain, who grows tedious quickly. Still, there’s an undeniably intoxicating bent to Byzantium, and a curious substance lurks beneath the surface of Ronan and Arterton’s familial bond. For one of the first times in quite awhile, I’ve seen a vampire movie I wouldn’t mind returning to for another bite.
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