We are in the middle of vampire craze in cinema. Ever since Twilight, there was a bit of a renaissance when it comes to vampire films - there seem to be at least three new big productions every year. From television shows like True Blood and The Vampire Diaries through European flicks like Livide and Let the Right One in to the big productions like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Underworld series, vampires are everywhere these days.
For me the best vampire film ever made is still Interview with the Vampire. It's almost 20 years old now but for me this is still the benchmark for this kind of films. Based on fantastic novel by Anne Rice the film is a very faithful adaptation and it truly captures the essence of vampire films - sensual, mysterious, fascinating. Now the director of the film, Neil Jordan, returns to vampire stories in Byzantium.
I didn't have high hopes for the movie - the release date kept being pushed back and that's never a good sign. Also even though Jordan is a fantastic director, he didn't make a movie that would be highly praised in years. The film surprised me, though. It's not anything to rave about but it kept my interest throughout and it had several quite unique things that I haven't seen in any other vampire film.
The film follows two vampires - Clara and her daughter Eleanor. From the very beginning we see that they are very different - Clara is fierce, detached and ruthless while Eleanor is shy and very introvert. Clara is the provider - she works as a dancer in the club to earn money for the two of them. In the beginning of the film a mysterious man chases Clara and then she kills him in their apartment, which prompts the two to seek new hideout, again.
The two move to small coastal town where Clara seduces a man who lives in abandoned hotel called Byzantium, thus securing a shelter for her and Eleanor. Meanwhile Eleanor is struggling with her desire to tell someone the truth about who she and her mother really are and she bonds with the local boy who takes an interest in her.
There isn't much story in Byzantium, but the events are presented in an interesting way - we start at one point and we go back through Eleanor's stories and memories and slowly everything falls into place. Usually I am a little annoyed with non-linear narrative, which is like a pandemic in recent movies, but here it worked because it made a so-so story a bit more mysterious, because as I watched the film I kept wondering why certain things were happening, only to have that answered later in the movie by the flashbacks.
Jordan is really amazing when doing this sort of thing - telling stories that are spread over vast periods of time and holding your interest throughout - Interview with the Vampire is a good example for that, another is Breakfast on Pluto. What Byzantium lacks in the story, Jordan makes up with his direction, but some of the flaws here are hard to ignore.
My problem with this bold new approach to vampire movie genre is that some of the ideas people have to bring fresh feel to the well established myth of vampire are just fucking ridiculous. So we have those two beautiful women who are immortal. Also - they can walk in the sunlight, even though they are vampires. They've been around for circa 200 years. We know Eleanor can play piano masterfully because she had all that time to perfect the skill. But instead of capitalizing on that Clara chooses to whore herself out to get some money for the two of them? Even though it makes Eleanor resent her even more? Really?
In other words my point is - I just don't buy this whole idea where vampires have money problems. I bought it in Let the Right One in, where a vampire 1. couldn't go out in the daytime 2. was forever a child, but this? I'm fairly certain Gemma Arterton could easily seduce any rich and sophisticated guy and marry him for his cash and that's not even vampire Gemma Arterton, just you know, regular human Gemma Arterton, yet I watch this film and I see her character making out with low-life creeps for money. What the hell?
Another thing is that I swear to God occasionally I watch those vampire films and some of it is just thrown in there for the sake of attracting people who will see any vampire film out there - Eleanor and Clara are immortal, drink blood and can't enter the house without invitation (very popular thing in vampire movies these days). That's it. That's not really much for vampire film, isn't? No heightened senses, no super strength, no flying. Seems to me that all of that fantastical angle is just a fog screen and they could have just as easily be fugitives, but the vampire thing was added to add some spark to this otherwise average tale.
Even with all those flaws, there are many great things in the story. The abandoned hotel is a fantastic setting, Eleanor writing her story and throwing the sheets of paper away, in the process telling it to strangers is a lovely idea as is the ritual that transforms people into vampires here. The material is really elevated by the execution and especially by the two main actresses.
Gemma Arterton, despite talking in a rather annoying accent (I don't know if it is the way she talks or just something in the movie) is very good here playing a woman determined to survive and to protect her daughter. She is quite amoral in her actions and she doesn't care about anyone but Eleanor - but you have a feeling that it is simply because she never had a chance to trust anyone in her life.
But the best performance in the movie belongs to Saoirse Ronan. She really does wonders with material given to her and she gives Eleanor a heart and soul. Tormented soul burdened with everything she experienced over the years. I admire Ronan's dedication for the part too - apparently she has learned how to play the piano for the film and it's actually her we can hear playing in the movie.
The film also has several actors, that are rather underused but manage to shine in their scenes, including Maria Doyle Kennedy and Sam Riley. Jonny Lee Miller and Tom Hollander are also in the cast but they have rather thankless roles. The worst in the cast are definitely Caleb Landry Jones, who managed to be creepy and off putting where role required the opposite of him and Uri Gavriel who played the main villain in the film and it was so fucking awful, as if he time traveled from the past and thought he was the bad guy in James Bond movie in the 80's. Stephen Rea, who usually appears in Jordan's films, would have done a much better job here.
The film is beautiful to look at, the scenery is lush and the scenes are wonderfully shot, in a very artistic way where all the details are carefully planned and everything looks almost like a painting There are a lot of close ups, particularly of Ronan's face, as well as the images of stark surroundings, which brought the cinematography of Hanna to my mind.
Byzantium is an interesting film, even though the story is far from being strong and free from plot holes. It's an enjoyable film but I think I can safely recommend it only to the fans of the main two ladies.
(2012, 118 min)
Plot: Residents of a coastal town learn, with deathly consequences, the secret shared by the two mysterious women who have sought shelter at a local resort.
Moira Buffini (play), Moira Buffini (teleplay)
Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, Caleb Landry Jones