There was no doubt in my mind that I would eventually watch this film. For two reasons. The first being the massive Irish connections and the second being vampires. I like vampires. And I’m not talking the teen sparkly angst kind, I’m talking the sexy, dangerous and highly physical kind.
Based on a play by Moira Buffini, Byzantium was adapted for screen by the same author and directed by Sligo Irishman Neil Jordan (Interview With A Vampire, The Crying Game). The story follows Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) as they flee a brothership who are intent on ending their supposedly “accidental” existence.
While they’re on the run Eleanor begins to narrate their tale, and slowly throughout the course of this two hour film their two hundred year old story unravels, intricately woven with the strands of the modern, current account. I’m struck by the beauty of the language and the effortless way in which Ronan injects so much implied emotion into her voice, but yet it doesn’t falter, almost making us thoroughly believe in Eleanor’s acceptance of her lonely and cold life. Sometimes I wish we still spoke in such a manner. A pox upon the modern evolution of language!
As with all Jordan films, Byzantium was atmospheric, with hidden tension and a constant feeling of inevitability palpable throughout. The coastal setting provided starkly grey imagery and when interspersed with much ruby red blood was often a contrast that treated the eyes.
The stand out aspect of this film for me though was most definitely the performances. The cast, in its entirety, were truly excellent, with Arterton and Ronan giving exceptional performances as Clara and Eleanor. I found their differences delicious; Clara’s troubled past making her hardened, dangerous and with character elements that almost made her my perfect idea of what a vampire should be, and Eleanor a polar opposite as she struggles with her guilt and her secrets, her Angel of Death persona coming to the fore as she feeds only upon those who give consent and are ready to be taken. Both, when presented with their personal challenges are intermittently highly relatable. At times you’ll find yourself agreeing with Eleanor’s ethos, and at others you’ll find yourself completely understanding Clara’s more extreme methods and approach to safeguarding their futures. Regardless of who you find yourself more attached to, one theme is obviously paramount, and that is the unconditional, confounding love a mother will always feel for her daughter.
It isn’t just our two female leads who impressed me though, as mentioned above the entire cast gave great performances for Jordan. Jonny Lee Miller (Elementary) as the despicable Ruthven plays his villainous role to perfection and Caleb Landry Jones (X-Men: First Class, Friday Night Lights) as the sickly and strange Frank was a lovely, but not story encompassing love interest for Eleanor.
I may have waxed lyrical about Byzantium thus far, but it is not without its problems. I recall checking the time when I was about an hour in because I felt as though the film had barely started to get going and was worried that the pacing would mean a rushed, hurried conclusion. Proceedings kicked up a notch following this though, and the second half of the film is full of reveals. I often felt as though this could be two separate movies that had been sliced up and spliced together by mistake. There was the hard-hitting English drama about the psychological and sexual abuse of young women, and the darkly sexy, original take on a unique brand of soucriant. Sometimes they work together in this movie, sometimes they don’t.
There were one or two gaping plot-holes and several aspects of this film that didn’t make much sense. Upon deeper thought the following morning though, I found myself willing and able to explain away most of these inconsistencies by considering the characterisation and the origin of the piece. For anyone looking for Interview With A Vampire Part Deux, you won’t find it in Byzantium. The majority of the reviews I’ve read have it ranked for mid-table obscurity but I enjoyed it nonetheless.
I found it was the characters, above the premise or anything else that kept my attention locked in for the duration. Some may be disappointed with Byzantium, because it doesn’t seem to fit into any modern mold, but if you’re anything like me and have become frustrated with recent takes on the vampire horror genre then you will appreciate this atypical offering.
IMDB Rating: 6.5
Do I agree?: Solid 7 from yours truly.