Starring: Gemma Arterton, Saoirse Ronan, Caleb Landry Jones
You may like this if you like: Interview with the Vampire (Neil Jordan, 1994), Dorian Gray (Oliver Parker, 2009), Twilight (Catherine Hardwicke, 2008)
Two mysterious women, a stripper/prostitute by the name of Clara (Arterton) and her younger sister Eleanor (Ronan) seek refuge in a rundown coastal town. Unknown to any of the residents they are both two hundred year old vampires that have been on the run from the male dominated and slightly stupidly named ‘Pointed Nails of Justice’. The main reason for this is that Clara committed a crime by both becoming a vampire herself and then making Eleanor become one too. After meeting hapless guest house owner Noel (Daniel Mays), the ruthless Clara moves in, turning the guest house (called Byzantium) into a brothel while the more morally conflicted Eleanor starts a romance with leukaemia sufferer Frank (Landry Jones). Due to Eleanor’s conflicted and confused feelings of morality what follows are revelations that may have deadly consequences for many.
This is Twilight for grownups apparently according to one review I saw. Well, due to that horrible franchise and the plethora of mainstream vampire films that exist Neil Jordan’s third film of that subject blatantly tries its hardest to distance itself from these as much as it can. Though perhaps there was such a focus on this that Jordan forgot about everything else. For example, one of the key elements is that these bloodsuckers kill solely with a protruding finger nail. They also seem to have no problem with sunlight. Though this is admittedly different, how they kill is irrelevant without a good story that contains interesting characters.
Based on a play, Byzantium does have potential. The atmosphere of a decaying and slightly sleazy British seaside town (though filmed in Ireland) is very effective and the narrative does present some interesting themes. The ‘right’ of eternal life is only given to strong souls (and only men) and the motivations behind the two protagonist’s actions do provide potentially interesting character arcs. However for me it is all dealt with in a confused manor leaving characters that are sometimes very hard to care about and a story that is often genuinely quite contrived, overlong and boring. There sometimes seems to be less of a focus on the ‘vampire’ element as the word is used very sparingly and they seem to not necessarily have to drink blood to survive. They appear to be depicted as immortals, and that does present some potentially interesting ideas about being able to live forever and the potential character conflicts, but this potential for me was never truly realised. There is also some huge gender politics at play here in the vampire world, but once again these are just skirted over when they could have been covered in more interesting detail. This is particularity inconsistent considering what Gemma Arterton is ‘wearing’ throughout the film. There seems to be enough musings but never the depth necessary to make this film as involving as it should be.
A strong cast that also includes Tom Hollander, Sam Riley and Jonny Lee Miller all give good and effective performances but are not simply given the substance their performances deserve. As a film that is always played extremely serious, Byzantium lacks the slightly camp fun of Interview with the Vampire and due to the lack of substance and under developed themes does often verge on boring. That said there is enough claret drenched moments along with the good performances and effective atmosphere to keep things ticking over.
Effectively moody and well acted, Jordan’s vampire return has the foundations in place but a slightly contrived narrative and lack of emotional depth never realise the potential.