Matt Micucci has another look at Byzantium.
Vampires could arguably be considered the most long-lived horror creatures in cinema. From its early days in spine-tingling classics like F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu to the more recent glittery heart-throb Twilight re-incarnations, they have given way to more sexually charged and romantic big screen legacies than one could even dare to imagine. Neil Jordan himself, with Byzantium, would appear to be returning to familiar grounds, after his 1994 film Interview with the Vampire.
Indeed, the two films have many things in common. Aside from the breed of the lead characters and the mixture of gothic corsets with modern latex, there are certain similarities in the storyline itself. Much like the previous work’s Louis told the story of his blood-soaked life of two hundred years to his interviewer, Saoirse Ronan’s Eleanor communicates with humans by writing her tale on pieces of paper, crumpling them up and throwing them out of her bedroom window.
That is how the film starts; written in old fashioned calligraphy, the words ‘the end’ fill the screen, as she finishes writing her chronicles once again. Soon enough we are introduced to the two leading ladies in the film and her story, Eleanor and Clara. The first is the aforementioned miserable and introvert creature, forever doomed to live the rest of her life as a girl of sixteen – a notoriously difficult age. Clara, her mother, is quite different, with her sexually extrovert personality and an unquenchable thirst for revenge on the male gender, upon whom she blames the hardships she had to endure throughout her life.
Apart from the element of the obvious clash of personalities concealing a fertile ground for compelling domestic drama to grow within a usually commercialised horror concept (which is also impressive especially considering the usual exploitation of the female vampire figure in past films of both dubious and obvious taste), there is an added impact in the closeness of age between the mother and the daughter. Aesthetically, it is a naturally unusual element, and is reminiscent of countless other Jordan works, like the unlikely pairing of short and chubby Bob Hoskins with beautiful call girl Cathy Tyson in Mona Lisa, not to mention the sexual ambiguity of Jaye Davidson’s transvestite in The Crying Game.
Yet, despite their differences, the bond between the two is strong and genuine. Clara’s protective nature towards her daughter is nothing short of a motherly mission and is made quite clear not only after she kills a fellow vampire who threatens Eleanor’s safety but also as she sings her a lullaby while hitching a ride off a truck driver in the middle of the night. On her part, Eleanor is just as rebellious as any teenage girl would be, despite her true age. It is her quiet and innocent acts of defiance that get her mother and her into trouble.
The introduction is exciting and promising. As far as vampire films go, Byzantium has more in common with the intelligence of Let the Right One In then the instant glimmer of Twilight, particularly in the present day sequences where, through a lot of cold and gray lighting, cinematographer Sean Bobbit lets the setting of the small coastal town naturally inspire a cold kind of desolation. In its Victorian sequences, however, the film’s looks reveal a vein of elegance and decadence which takes us back again to Jordan’s previous venture in blood-sucking territory.
One other thing that Byzantium has in common with Interview with the Vampire is that neither film was written by Neil Jordan, which is slightly disappointing given the distinctive quality of Jordan’s best screenwriting works. However, given Moira Buffini’s fine work in Jane Eyre, such a thing should not have been as much of a negatively defining element as, unfortunately, it is. Her screenplay, which is adapted from her own play script, is quite uneven and doesn’t seem very impressive.
While the characters in Byzantium are colourful and interesting, their interactions are far less remarkable. This is most notable in the underwhelming love interests: Eleanor’s teenage crush on a fragile and physically ill boy named Frank is not given much credibility, while Clara’s admiration for her mysterious vampire benefactor Darvell, played by Sam Riley, is practically non existent. This is, of course, a conscious choice in favour of a feminist theme and a portrayal of female strength, further exhibited by the fact that all the male characters are either portrayed as weak and pathetic or rude and malevolent. In that case, however, Clara’s role as a madam in a brothel and Jordan’s choice to portray her as a femme fatale is more than merely puzzling.
The imperfections in the screenplay become more obvious with the film’s clumsy time shifts. The flashback sequences simply do not gel as well as they should. They seem confused and disconnected, as well as annoyingly narration-heavy. They also negatively disturb the flow of the film, with a pace that eventually becomes frustratingly inconsistent. For the most part, there is a genuine lack in urgency, a lack which also ends up making the frantic ending seem rushed and messy.
With its thematic complexity and tender fragilities, Byzantium manages not only to break through usual vampire film conventionalities but also avoids a slip into over-sentimental grounds. This, along with a wonderful visual work, is reason enough for it to stand out and retain some dignity. However, a lack of focus in its narrative aspect makes it seem much too complicated and messy, which is something that does not feature in Neil Jordan’s best work; and that is the primary reason why Byzantium could never be ranked among the Sligo-man’s best directorial efforts.