The film stars Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan as a wandering mother/daughter vampire team, Clara and Eleanor, constantly on the move to evade from those who would uncover their true identities, and those who already know it. A moral pair, they work as sort of Angels of Death, only feeding on the terminally ill or the extremely elderly – a form of vampiric euthanasia. Clara, eternally voluptuous, trades on her body to keep the duo in housing and out of trouble. Eleanor, eternally 16, searches for meaning in her never-ending life, tortured internally by the things she has seen and done.Their wanderings bring them full circle to the sleepy English seaside town where their story began 150 years earlier, prompting a series of fractured flashbacks that give us a glimpse into their pasts. Clara’s being condemned to imprisonment in a brothel in her earlier life is echoed as she turns a run-down hotel in the present, named Byzantium, into a whorehouse with herself as madam. Eleanor starts at a new school where her creative writing assignments draw suspicious glances and her relationship with sickly classmate Frank (Caleb Landry Jones) causes her cursed heart to skip a beat.
A gorgeous production, shot in some curious locations, Byzantium looks as good as anything Neil Jordan has made before. Ever-reliable cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (Hunger, Shame) excels in lighting the dark and murky streets of modern Britain, while sadly bringing little life to its nineteenth century counterpart. Perhaps the most in-your-face achievement of Byzantium is the remarkable varieties of ways the crew have found to light and shoot Gemma Arterton’s cleavage. Jordan has never been one to shy away from sexuality, but here the obsession with Arterton’s bosom is beyond distracting, the centre point of far too many frames. In one of the film’s most dramatic sequences, a vampire’s birth is heralded by a Shining-like cascade of blood, in which Arterton bathes, her cleavage overflowing with blood. Her cups literally runneth over with blood.
In spite of scene-stealing competition from her cleavage, Arterton holds much of the film together with an impressively committed performance. Ronan is ever reliable as a disenfranchised youth, and her sighs and longing glances carry her character’s tragedy. Sadly, she remains utterly unconvincing in romantic roles, and paired with the zombified Jones, sporting a Danish (?) accent that is baffling to the ears, makes for some very awkward drama. Johnny Lee Miller minces amusingly as the Victorian villain, while Control’s Sam Riley is horrendously underutilised in a supporting role.
One of Byzantium’s great saving graces is in its lightly sketched mythology, introducing its vampires as an underground cabal of male vampires who do not approve of females amongst their ranks, and forbid them to be makers. The idea of an ancient sect of fundamentalist chauvinists throws up cute allusions to the Catholic Church, although despite their intimidation it is hard to suppress a guffaw when they introduce themselves as ‘The Pointed Nails of Justice’.
Lovely to look at for the most part, adequately acted and with an impressive score by Javier Navarrete (Pan’s Labyrinth), Byzantium will not be one of Jordan’s best remembered films, but it is a welcome return to the gothic for the Irish filmmaker. While the ending feels rushed and features one excessively under-explained character reversal, there is enough in the film to keep the attention throughout.
A mobile phone vibrating in a puddle of blood, for example. There’s something we haven’t seen before.
15A (see IFCO website for details)
Byzantium is released on 31st May 2013