Starring: Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska
Being an immortal vampire and living through the centuries, knowing many of the great musicians, writers and scientists through the ages, musician Adam (Hiddleston) is becoming increasingly depressed and disillusioned with the human race, or ‘zombies’ as his kind refers to them. He lives a reclusive life in an abandoned building outside Detroit and still manages to be a successful, but highly mysterious musician, living off blood supplies from a local doctor (Jeffrey Wright), as direct human blood is no longer pure enough. Adam contemplates suicide, but to cheer him up his wife of many centuries Eve (Swinton) travels from her home in Tangiers to help him break out of his increasing feeling of disillusionment. Eve seems to be successful; however the unexpected arrival of Eve’s wayward sister Ava (Wasikowska) threatens Adam’s sanity and tolerance even further as well as Adam and Eve’s eternal marriage.
Well, it isn’t exactly like we needed yet another vampire film was it?!? Yet thankfully Jim Jarmusch, very much a true auteur of original ideas, has taken an initial unoriginal concept and used it to create a highly original, very well written and acted film that is both engaging and funny from start to finish.
Thankfully never having to use the word ‘vampire’ in the script, Jarmusch’s film plays brilliantly with the idea and concept of immortals living in this world, with plenty of subtle and often witty references to science, music, literature and culture through the ages. This is most apparent in Christopher Marlowe (Yes, THE Christopher Marlowe) played by John Hurt. In the few scenes Hurt gets there are references to the idea that Marlowe actually wrote Shakespeare’s plays, but they are kept suitably subtle. Thankfully Jarmusch is too much of an experienced a filmmaker to ever get carried away and always avoids the temptation to overdo the references or subtle jokes, achieving a great balance between playful humour and a narrative that engages on its own. The fact these vampires refer to us as ‘zombies’ shows they regard themselves as superior (well, they are immortal so I would if I were them), and that simply getting blood directly from a human is not as effective anymore as due to our modern lifestyle we have contaminated our blood (“of course it has made you ill, he is in the music industry!”), perhaps serves as a subtle commentary on modern life.
At its heart Only Lovers Left Alive is a love story, and Hiddleston and Swinton are note perfect as the immortal couple. The two share a great on screen chemistry and as always, Hiddlestone demonstrates effortless charisma. Admittedly the film takes a while to get going, but once we get to know these two characters through great writing and superb acting we are giving a film where we truly care about the two protagonists. They may be blessed with the gift of immortality and all that entails, but we can still relate to their troubles and desires, as they are ultimately very human emotions. Once I got to know these two characters, and John Hurt’s, I just really enjoyed being in their company, even when dialogue was minimal, and I would certainly challenge anyone who did not feel the same.
It may be a tried and tested method, but throwing a new character into the narrative to drive things along and reveal more about main characters is effective when well written, and that is exactly what happens when Mia Wasikowska turns up. A character already mentioned in passing in a less than positive tone, it is her appearance that allows the plot to really develop before the film risks entering self indulgent territory. The narrative’s final third does not disappoint, still keeping a subtle sense of humour throughout, despite at being just over two hours, Only Lovers Left Alive manages to engage and feel full of intelligence and ideas from start to finish, and despite our protagonist’s immortality and wealth of knowledge is driven by a very human emotion: love.
Jarmusch himself is a true auteur, his attention to detail obvious in every shot and his intelligence evident in every line of dialogue. Only Lovers Left Alive is a beautifully atmospheric and intimate, but also often wonderfully comic film that entrances and engages from start to finish, producing one of the gems of the year so far that gets better the more I think about it. Also, for some reason the line “You drank Ian!” will stay with me for a while!