While films such as The Butcher Boy (1997), In Dreams (1999) and Breakfast On Pluto (2005) all had a defiantly off-kilter relationship to reality, it’s been nearly 20 years since director Neil Jordan dealt with an overtly supernatural story on screen.
A critical and box office success, 1994’s Interview With A Vampire was the last time Jordan flexed those muscles, and that film came ten years after his previous foray into fantasy, the lower budgeted, but widely acclaimed Angela Carter adaptation, The Company Of Wolves (1984).
Placed somewhere between both Interview and Wolves, Byzantium finds Jordan returning to the world of the vampire, albeit one that’s a far cry from the pomp and circumstance of his previous entry.
Adapted from scriptwriter Moira Buffini’s own play, A Vampire Story, Byzantium follows the story of mother and daughter Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan). Immortal for over two centuries, they’re on the run from the patriarchy of male vampires known only as The Brotherhood, who view these female bloodsuckers as an upset to the natural order.
Forced to flee their home and washing up in an unnamed southern seaside town, Clara and Eleanor cross paths with Noel (Daniel Mays), a down-at-heel loner who owns a dilapidated sea front hotel called Byzantium. Taking advantage of Noel’s loneliness, Clara moves her and Eleanor into the hotel and turns Byzantium into a brothel. But The Brotherhood are on their trail and it isn’t long before the mysterious Darvell (Sam Riley) and Savella (Uri Gavriel) are knocking at Byzantium’s door…
While different in tone and style to Interview, what Byzantium shares with Jordan’s earlier film is an interest in the timeless aspect of the undead, and both Clara and Eleanor spend a fair amount of time ruminating on their long and storied lives.
As a result of this, large sections of the narrative play out in flashback, with the backstory of both the younger Clara and Eleanor relayed in sparing, but well-judged fragments. These portions of the film are hugely effective and the romantic, open feel of the 19th century shore contrasts nicely with the grubby and cramped feel of the modern seaside town.
These period segments also brings the best out of Arterton, who plays the 19th century Clara with real vim and vigour, while Jonny Lee Miller gives the film a recognizable and detestable villain as they syphilitic rake, Ruthven.
While these performances are backed up by strong turns from Sam Riley, Ronan, Daniel Mays and Tom Hollander, unfortunately not every role is a complete success. In particular, Caleb Landry Jones struggles badly as Eleanor’s school sweetheart, Frank. Sporting an accent and manner almost as off-putting as the Irish brogue he used in X-Men: First Class, Jones fails to bring any nuance to a character who plays a key role in the film’s plot, but never really earns either the audience’s sympathy or interest.
However, the main weakness of Byzantium lies in Buffini’s screenplay. At its best when hewing closer to its pulpier, bloodier roots, the film unfortunately flounders when it attempts to be a character drama. This is especially true of the subplot between Frank and Eleanor, but also applies to the attempts to play up tension between Clara and Eleanor, which come off as overly shrill and lacking any real depth or resonance.
That stand-off isn’t helped by the fact that, even with the magical properties of vampirism at work, you never really buy into the idea that Ronan and Arterton are related, let alone mother and daughter. Both Arterton and Ronan are game in their respective roles, but it’s telling that the film is at its most effective when the two women are separated and each ploughs their own furrow within the story.
However, despite these niggles, there’s still plenty to recommend within Byzantium’s slightly baggy two-hour running time. For a start, Jordan clearly hasn’t lost his ability to conjure up a hypnotic mood on screen, and there are long stretches of the picture that bring to mind that disembodied sense of melancholy that runs through films such as Mona Lisa (1986) and Angel (1982).
Helping Jordan create this moody, stylish yet tactile world is cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, who brilliantly manages to make the potentially mundane seaside locale a vivid, beguiling yet always believable setting. But it isn’t all just ambient mood and floating camera work, as Jordan knows instinctively when to have his menagerie of creatures of the night bare their (metaphorical) fangs and let the blood flow.
Infused with an edge that’s poised halfway between Let The Right One In and old-school Hammer horror, Byzantium is a vampire movie that seems unafraid to be a vampire movie and, in a post-True Blood/Twilight world, that feels like a relief.
While never quite hitting the heights of Jordan’s best work, Byzantium is nonetheless a stylish, well-mounted and refreshingly visceral addition to both the vampire canon and the director’s long and illustrious career.
Byzantium is out in UK cinemas on the 31st May.
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