Screened At: Tribeca Film Festival 2013
Directed By: Neil Jordan
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, Caleb Landry Jones, Daniel Mays, Uri Gavriel, Sam Riley
Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arterton are captivating enough, but this hybrid drama-period piece lacks the zest, pace and tension you’d expect from a film digging into the repercussions of vampirism.
Clara (Arterton) and her daughter Eleanor (Ronan) may be able to conjure their pointy nails, draw blood, and suck a victim dry, but making enough money to put a roof over their heads is a different story. Over two centuries after leaving their humanity behind to become vampires, the pair is still on the run, struggling to support themselves and keep their condition a secret. While Clara resorts to former human habits, making a living via prostitution, Eleanor consoles the elderly, putting those who are ready out of their misery.
When a run-in with someone connected to their past turns bloody, Clara uproots Eleanor yet again and the two set out to find a new home. Having just lost his mother, Clara befriends the lonely Noel (Daniel Mays) and convinces him to let her and Eleanor live with him at the property he just inherited, a hotel called Byzantium. While Clara runs her brothel out of their new abode, Eleanor reluctantly strikes up a relationship with Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), a connection that tempts her to finally reveal her unique history.
For a sub-genre frequently presented in commercial, teen brooding form, “Byzantium” makes for a refreshingly dark, deep spin on the vampire scenario. While vampirism in “Byzantium” still comes with perks, Clara and Eleanor’s lifestyle is far from powerful, fashionable, and sparkly. In fact, it’s quite bleak. Neil Jordan doesn’t treat the condition as a ticket to good skin and immortality, rather a warped form that requires a great deal of management and consideration.
Jordan also paints a devastating past and present for Clara and Eleanor, a human past defined by poverty, misogyny, and loneliness, and a vampire present with much of the same. The intercutting between the two takes some getting used to, but the more Jordan and screenwriter Moira Buffini, adapting from her own teleplay, develop the characters in the present, the more the past frames the ladies’ current situation, guiding your own emotions and loyalties, and making the double narrative feel cohesive.
While Eleanor is a likable lead from the start, Arterton faces quite the challenge to get the good in Clara to come through. Everything about Eleanor is wholesome, especially in comparison to Clara. Eleanor dons a comfortable hoodie whereas Clara stalks around in harsh heels; Clara viciously sucks her enemies dry whereas Eleanor uses her condition to abate suffering. The two clash in just about every respect and while that should make it easy to label one good and the other evil, Arterton and Ronan are so successful selling the deep connection and love between the two that it’s impossible not to root for one without rooting for the other, a deeply conflicting sentiment when it involves a potentially devastating disagreement.
However, even while the back-and-forth between Clara and Eleanor keeps you on your toes, and Jordan’s flashy style and bold colors are endlessly enchanting, both are dimmed by the gloom of the earlier portion of the flashback material. Rather than use rapid-fire exposition to power through the first act and make way for an epic vampire battle, “Byzantium” is more about the exposition – period. There isn’t one, concrete mission at the heart of the narrative. It’s a character study via history, and until enough of that history is conveyed to form an adequate connection between the audience and the characters, “Byzantium” can feel tedious.
“Byzantium” boasts a rich and fresh feeling vampire origin story and vampire governing faction (minus its silly title), and two vampire leads that still feel like real people, but Buffini’s script structure strips the piece of much momentum and Jordan’s inability to make key plot points pop as much as his color palette and striking visuals results in a rather one-note experience. Ronan, Arterton and select supporting cast members do manage to infuse “Byzantium” with enough life to make it a worthwhile watch and Jordan does hit the mark with a handful of particularly tense moments, but, overall, the film teeters upon insipid, vampire melodrama.