Byzantium, Review

The indie drama from the director of Interview with the Vampire provides a mosaic of blood and haunted emotions.

Growing up, vampires were one of my favorite ghost stories. Back in those days, they had not reentered the popular imagination as (solely) objects of sexual desire and fantasy, though I suppose that was always there. No, once upon a time vampires were ghoulish, revolting cadavers risen from the grave for damnable sins, destined to seek out the life essence of loved ones and strangers alike. For blood, as they say, is the life. With a certain big budget franchise finally over and Hollywood fads seeming to move on to zombies, vampires are apparently being left undisturbed in their resting places for lovers of the original folklore to unearth. And that is what Neil Jordan and Moira Buffini thankfully set out to do with this weekend’s limited release, Byzantium. And trust me, despite casting its central spotlight on two female vampires, there is nothing desirable about this lifestyle. Not exactly new territory for Mr. Jordan, as he discussed in our interview with the Irish filmmaker, the movie is almost a reversal of his 1994 classic, Interview with the Vampire. As that film starred two male vampires—one feeling every flicker of the fires of Hell beaconing his condemned soul and the other blessedly relishing the life pouring from his lips in a red gush—this one showcases an ingeniously conceived pair of sister vampires (a phrase which I use loosely). Also, while Jordan insists vampirism was the least interesting part about the relationship between these Undead, Byzantium goes to great lengths to recapture that macabre and existential madness that has long been absent in the genre.
 In modern day Hastings, England, two waifish ghouls named Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor Webb (Saoirse Ronan) have floated into town on the evening mist. The self-purported sisters have been alive for 200 years, but their existence is an unhappy one with Clara turning tricks (and throats) on the street just to afford Eleanor’s most basic needs. The younger, a self-described angel of death who feeds only on the consenting elderly, will be sweet 16 forever and is a volcano of tumultuous emotions ready to erupt. It is for that reason she finds a friend and beau in the hopelessly dense Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), a local boy in a writing workshop. Once he convinces her to come along, she has an amazing story to recount, one involving a mother who gave her soul to prostitution and her daughter to an orphanage; a mother who also would later betray Napoleonic era naval monsters in both the figurative (Jonny Lee Miller) and literal sense (Sam Riley) for a taste of pagan immortality off the West of Ireland. This particular tale sadly does not end. It just hangs after she passes the immortality to a suffering daughter a few years later. It is a Hell of a story. But it cannot be true…can it? Byzantium works on the most basic level because it removes many of the frills about Nosferatu. As they originally appeared in folklore, the “sisters” Webb can move about in the daylight and feed off blood at any time. Jordan goes a step further and removes the iconic fangs, thereby also deflating any penetration metaphors. Instead, a rather gruesome talon grows from the tip of each vampire’s thumb. All the better for slashing necks and cutting right to the good stuff. Ultimately, these succubi take very little pleasure from the kill, at least after their own deaths.
 The movie’s best sequence, which is repeated for several characters, comes from the genesis of these monsters. In an original idea that gets away from fluid swaps and returns to the more unholy concept of vampires, these creatures are birthed in a pagan ritual on a hidden island. In an early flashback, Riley’s mortally wounded Capt. Darvell makes a pact with the mysterious group of pale men called “The Brotherhood.” He later recounts his indoctrination into the supernatural to a horrified Miller and a tantalized Arterton. Clara eventually journeys to the island where one must kill a demonic doppelganger and drink from the great Irish waterfalls that run red with blood. In a brief moment of triumph and ecstasy, Clara bathes away her lingering morality in cascading fountains of crimson mist. It is the only happy moment in the film and the near death of her humanity. Aye, that humanity does continue to persist throughout the ages, as Clara first becomes a watchful guardian of her baby daughter in a Hastings orphanage. And when that daughter’s life is threatened at the age of 16, Clara inducts her too into the world of the damned. Surprisingly, the film is more a drama about mothers and daughters (with a four-year age difference) than it is about supernatural terrors.
 Like Kirsten Dunst’s devious Claudia in Interview, Eleanor is a child who will never grow up. But unlike that tragic creature who becomes a woman forever trapped in an adolescent’s body, Eleanor is an eternal youth. She cannot control her emotions or anguish at a lifestyle that requires her to hide her true self in a closet. With a poet’s heart, Eleanor wants her story to be told, but Clara insists they stay in the coffin or face destruction. However, when has a teenager ever done the rational thing? As any writer will tell you, stories need to be told, no matter the consequence. In this case, it is the arrival of 200-year pursuers who Eleanor has remained naively sheltered from. The Brotherhood, consisting of Darvell and several other elders from medieval times, chase a pair of vampires who are a double sin. It is considered a sacrilege by this secret order for a woman to be given immortality and it is a capital offense for there to ever be a child among their ranks. Thus, instead of offering a helping hand to two of their kind, they bring the proverbial stake. Still, even when these curiously misogynistic pagan beasts who wear very, very pretty clothes, as well as a dangerously inquisitive writing teacher played by Tom Hollander, the film belongs to Ronan and Arterton. Ronan, a child prodigy who surprises with every passing year in the level of depth and nuance she discovers in each new performance, strikes a lonely shadow on the crumbling ruins of an older part of Europe. One that is slowly being forgotten, even if this shade is cursed to remember it all.  Arterton is also excellent as a mothering presence that finds only joy and practical necessity in her gifts. As the film progresses, it is easier to side with the more wizened vampire whose delicate combination of allure and death eventually earns them a hotel and sanctuary from all who would destroy the last visage of emotion she would seemingly possess. Plus, the malicious vampires are always more fun.