Neil Jordan is back to directing a vampire film. Considering his Interview with a Vampire is held up pretty high in terms of vampire films, Byzantium has some anticipation and expectations behind it just because it is his film. Byzantium is not Interview with a Vampire. It is a wholly different kind of story with its own legends that command the lives of its vampires.
First off, this is a female-centric story. The two main characters are Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) who label themselves as sisters to others. They are fighting to remain inconspicuous to others and running away from those who wish to find them. Clara was not a well-off child and was dragged into becoming a prostitute by Ruthven (Johnny Lee Miller). Clara continues this livelihood even after becoming a vampire to provide for herself and Eleanor. On the other hand, Eleanor was more of an unwilling participant in all of this. She has more of conscience, feeding from those who are ready to die. She meets a boy named Frank (Caleb Landry Jones) in their newest town, and the two strike up a kind of crush between each other. Unfortunately, Frank’s blood cannot coagulate after a battle with cancer which means this relationship is kind of complicated. The looming threat is that someone or something is hunting them down. Clara knows who they are but keeps Eleanor in the dark.
The story of how they both became a vampire started 200 years ago and proceeds from there. This is not a traditional maker/progeny scenario. A vampire is made by traveling to a cave on a secluded island. Once you enter, you have become one. While the idea is fresh, the creator is still not seen and may be a spirit. It involves lots of bats and cascading water turning blood red. There is a strict invite-only policy on this vampire-making cave, and that is where the trouble begins.
The story is well told by Neil Jordan and playwright/screenwriter Moira Buffini. The story is not for everyone. There is more emphasis on how Clara and Eleanor came to be and their life on the run than there is on a killing spree by vampires. Nonetheless, there is a bit of gore and a lot of blood to go around. The flashbacks to the 1800’s are nicely done, using only a couple of locations and a few actors.
Both Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan play their characters well enough that it is believable that these two “sisters” are at odds with each other. They are total opposites. Clara is doing what it takes without much contemplation about the possible repercussions. Eleanor is still in the mode of a teenager, rebelling against Clara and doing something completely different with her life. Both Gemma and Saoirse play against each other in their conflicting roles. The pair is believable as a vampire family on the run.
I believe Neil Jordan really put Saoirse in the forefront of the film. She is lit more serenely, less harsh. There is also the use of a red hoodie that really brings out her features and fair skin that also plays a kind of foreshadowing role in what she is and what she eats to survive. I really enjoyed the scene where Frank starts bleeding really badly after an accident and Eleanor takes him home. A discarded rag full of blood shows just who she is and what she struggles to maintain.
On the other hand, Gemma Arterton as Clara is lit more dark, highlighting what she does to survive and make money for Eleanor and herself. She does not lead a pleasant life, and she is unafraid to leave evidence behind of her crimes. This is also an active role, and she has a few stunts and people to rip apart in the process. I have watched several of Gemma Arterton’s projects in the past few years. She is unafraid of taking different roles and not pigeonholing herself into a certain type of character. She is on the rise, and Byzantium is another film that shows exactly the kind of excellent roles she is capable of embracing.
The only real drawback of Byzantium is figuring out what rules these vampires follow and how they exist. The majority of the characteristics that usually apply are not in play here. There are no fangs and they can walk around in the daylight, but they cannot enter a home without being invited. Other questions come to mind about these vampires, and they are not answered. It is possible that Neil Jordan and Moira Buffini wanted to focus more on the story and less on the rules. It is a good story, and it is one that most will enjoy. It is not horror flick, but a drama with a little bit of horror thrown into the mix. It is not a blockbuster, but a film put on the indie circuit that will find its fans in the smaller theatres. I would suggest trying this different take on a vampire film. You might be surprised at the dynamic between the Eleanor and Clara, Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan portrayals of those characters , and the vampire legends that it throws out the window.
I give Byzantium 3.5 out of 5.
by Sarah Ksiazek