In the post-age of the Twilight films, it is tricky business to venture into vampire mythology without running the risk of having tomatoes thrown in your direction. Gone are the days of Cronos and Near Dark and Nosferatu and lately we’ve instead been bombarded with the slug of vapid, shallow Twilight films strewn with emotionally vacant sparkle-magic vampires more hell-bent on teen angst as religion and dour mopey-ness as character depth than anything resembling actual horror.
This type of bombardment has made me skeptical for vampire stories to achieve anything original or interesting or, dare I say, mature. I started to feel a sense that the vampire genre’ might be re-claimed a bit however with Xan Cassavetes’ Kiss Of The Damned (from South By Southwest earlier this year) and now with Neil Jordan’s Byzantium I have a small ray of hope that vampires might successfully get themselves out of the malls and back into the shadows where the damned well belong.
Byzantium is a wide sweeping, measured and all together lovely film that weaves a fairly light plot around a pair of interesting central characters and solid supporting ones to create a mythos that is both engaging and unique. The basic story revolves around Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan – Lovely Bones, Hanna) and Clara (Gemma Arterton – Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, Clash Of the Titans remake, Disappearance Of Alice Creed): a pair of women initially self identified as sisters but shown ultimately to be mother and daughter who seem constantly on the run or in hiding from a threats both literal and emotional. The vampires of this mythology don’t have fangs and don’t hang out in castles but rather wander around in the daytime and use a retractable thumb-talon deal to make the first cut before drinking blood. They also seem to have reflections. And they don’t sparkle.
Eleanor is a forever-teenager who longs to be understood and heard but merely resorts to throwing journal pages into the wind in a futile attempt to express herself. Eleanor feeds only on those who want to die and serves as a kind of spirit guide for those ready to go. In one early scene, she has a slightly stilted conversation with an old man (who found her pages) which gives way to a feeding scene that is gentle, peaceful – almost kind in its approach.
Clara, on the other hand, works in more adult pursuits and makes her living in gentleman’s clubs and on and off the street corners. Clara works not unlike a caged or cornered animal, using every possible tool at her disposal to not only sustain herself but keep the two of them out of trouble. As I mentioned, there is an ever-present threat of some kind of ancient order after them and staying one step ahead is a stress felt by the women and definitely by the viewer. An early pursuit/chase scene should be viewed by anyone making an action thriller and wanting to actually film that type of action well versus the flash-cutting and nauseating approach. Clara (through her means and methods) hooks them up with a sad-sack of a man who owns a hotel which is quickly turned into a house of ill repute and affords the women a sense of safety amidst the heathens.
We’re sent back and forth in time a good chunk of the film’s middle to get some back story on the women and the circumstances that befell them and how that origin dictates how they live now. There is some grand but enjoyable scene stealing on the parts of Sam Riley and Johnny Lee Miller and a tightly handled but all together immersing sequence of events after the ‘turning’ that I’d rather not go into depth about because it is much better experienced as it happens. Sufficed to say it was quite remarkable and I think entirely historic in the way in which things happen. Hate to be so annoyingly vague but, again, better scene then told.
Amid these strong performances from the two central women and others, Caleb Landry Jones stands out as one of the best. As a sickly, forlorn schoolmate of Eleanor, Jones’ Frank seems to drift just about the ground like a scrap of paper – a weightlessness that is eerie and at the same time endearing. If you’ve seen his great work in Antiviral, you know he has some range and his performance as Frank in this film further cements that idea.
Some of you might be wondering why I’ve not gotten into the parallels between Neil Jordan’s last vampire work, Interview With The Vampire and this one. I wasn’t set up prior to viewing to constantly looking for connections between the two and got to instead enjoy it on its own merits. Jordan is a very solid director and his eye for space and the calmness that punctuates the more dramatic and bloody moments is arresting and really pretty to watch. I will say, though, that before I described the film as ‘measured’ which some might take as a polite way of saying ‘slow’ which I guess is a fair point. Byzantium doesn’t pretend to be a schlock-a-minute action affair with superhero vampires but instead takes its time to move through its world with a tempered, almost quiet grace. It is a film that, at times, you might lose patience with but stay with it because the film as a whole is worth the extra effort.