Sam Osborn watches Neil Jordan’s new film.
Byzantium is a vampire movie. Another one? I hear a collective sigh. After all, we have been inundated with movies of this genre lately, especially with Stephanie Meyer’s kind contribution to the cause ruining the genre for generations to come. Anyway, I feel I am straying off point here a little. In director Neil Jordan’s last vampire outing (Interview with the Vampire) we met Lestat and Louis, one a murderous, animalistic killer and the other a tormented soul. In Byzantium, based on the Moira Buffini play A Vampire Story, we meet Clara and Eleanor who bear a striking resemblance to their male counterparts. Byzantium focuses on the relationship between the mother and daughter vampire duo and their struggle for their very survival.
In an echo of Interview, the story is narrated by Eleanor throughout. It begins with the two protagonists going on the run to a dilapidated seaside resort; they take refuge in a disused hotel called Byzantium which Clara (Gemma Arterton) turns into a successful brothel to support herself and her daughter. Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) is a lonely and tormented teenager who is desperate to find someone to share her story with, making the isolated hotel a fitting location for her.
Shot in Ireland and the UK, the story takes place mostly in a modern English city whilst using flashbacks to explain the origins of the vampires two centuries before. The creation of Byzantium’s vampires sits firmly in a more mythical and old fashioned mythology, which involves visiting a mystic cave for the change to take place. The setting for the vampire’s rebirth is beautiful, never more so than in the visually stunning scene of Arterton under a waterfall of blood. In a twist on typical vampire physiology none of Byzantium’s creatures have pointed fangs for bloodletting; instead they have a sharp thumb nail that extends when they are ready to feed. Besides this there is nothing noteworthy or identifiable about the vampires; the fact they are undetectable in a crowd allows an easier explanation of how they are able to survive.
The contrast between Eleanor and Clara is vast. Clara is a strong willed killing machine who is prepared to do anything to ensure herself and her daughter’s safety, including selling herself and others to make ends meet. Eleanor is in a constant struggle with her need for blood; in an attempt to soothe her conscience she gives peace to those about to die by only feeding off those who are ready. To express her feelings Eleanor is seen repeatedly writing down her life story and then ripping it up and throwing it to the wind. She struggles alone like this until meeting someone to share her story with. Her soul mate comes in the form of Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), a teenage boy who is suffering from leukaemia . Although Ronan is superb, including this vein of hormonal teenage angst does little to help the genre move away from the overcrowded nature of the Twilight generation.
There is an attempt to tackle gender politics with the revelation that women are forbidden from becoming vampires by the Brotherhood which controls access to the cave. This does not come off as well as it could. You are asked to believe that Clara is only working in the sex trade as that is how she lived her life before changing. This suggests that Clara is exacting revenge on men for how badly they have treated her in the past. The main distraction from making any real statement of this is the over sexualisation of Clara herself. The camera focuses in on her body which does little to support the women’s empowerment and more to remind the audience just how hot she is. The gorgeous, stripper type vampire has now been done to death and in my opinion would be a stronger story without relying on this crutch to sell female vampires.
There are some very good performances from the supporting cast. Daniel Mays as the hapless love-struck man who takes pity on Clara, Tom Hollander as the English teacher who frets over Eleanor’s graphic imagination, Sam Riley and Johnny Lee Miller as the evil brotherhood. Lee Miller is delicious as a hideous and foul villain providing a much needed threat to the girls’ survival.
The big question is do we really need another vampire movie? I think there is still room for this genre to continue. I could pretty much do without the moody teenage vamp thing, but will never be put off a movie because it has vampires in it. The feminist slant of the story along with the deviation from the “normal” vampire mythology is a refreshing on a well-worn story. There’s plenty of gore to please the horror fans, especially in the opening sequence with a cheese wire garrotte. Is this going to be a film that people remember for years to come? Probably not, but that’s not to say that it isn’t a beautiful film that I thoroughly enjoyed.
Sam Osborn tweets here. Byzantium is released on Friday 31 May.