Directed by: Neil Jordan
Written by: Moira Buffini
Featuring: Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, Caleb Landry Jones, Jonny Lee Miller, Sam Riley
Neil Jordan gave us one take on the vampire myth in the glossy 1994 Hollywood version of Interview with the Vampire. Almost 20 years later, he's back with a fang with Byzantium, a much grittier Brit rendition of those who walk by night. It's a much smaller story, although it too spans several centuries, but it doesn't quite manage to distinguish itself among the current glut of bloodsucker yarns.
There are plenty of intriguing concepts wrapped up in the narrative as these vampires play by a different set of rules than the ones we're accustomed to. They stroll around in the daytime, open veins with thumbnails rather than teeth, and are perpetually short of cash. Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) are mother-and-daughter vamps who've been wandering the English Riviera for two hundred years.
The drifter lifestyle suits Clara, who began her adult life as a whore, and still plies her trade among hopeless holidaymakers in rundown seaside towns. Educated (thanks to the profits generated by her mother's labors), introverted Eleanor hates it, however. She's growing increasingly weary of the constant subterfuge and lies, and can't bear the thought of moving on every few months. Yet, when the women are tracked down by one of their vampire brethren, it's time to run. Vampire-dom is a Boys Only club, and the few existing members regard Clara as a thief. They have pledged to destroy her for her hubris in claiming her piece of the vampire pie.
Vampire status isn't conferred by a bite, but, instead, a visit to a mystical, bat-filled cave on a remote island off the coast of Ireland is required. Back in the early nineteenth century, when she was dying of syphilis or consumption, or both, Clara stole the map from a punter and grabbed immortality for herself. Later, she compounded her crime by initiating a 16-year-old Eleanor, and the guy-vamps have been plotting to kill her ever since. Consequently, Clara operates in a state of high alert, the tiger-mom protecting her cub, slaughtering anyone she perceives as a threat – much to Eleanor's disgust. When dreamy Eleanor needs to feed, she picks an elderly victim who is tired of life and gently pulls their final curtain.
Thus, the stage is set for a unique coming-of-age story. The duo winds up in a rundown boarding house in Hastings named, wildly inappropriately, "Byzantium." While Clara gathers some other working girls and starts running a brothel, Eleanor meets a cute boy, Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), and starts plotting an exit strategy from the cloying, centuries-long, Electra-tinged connection with her mother.
Byzantium is ambitious and lyrical in scope and captures the faded glories of Hastings and the failed hopes of those who live there perfectly -- the miserable human characters bring some wry humor into play. It also addresses some of the Big Questions of vampire lore, such as how does it feel to be alive for so long, to bring death to others but never taste it yourself, to see human follies such as addiction, self-pity and cruelty repeat themselves ad infinitum, ad nauseum? Despite this, there's a curiously fixed quality about these vampires – Eleanor is the perpetual moody adolescent, writing in her diary, staring into space, ranting at her Mom, while Clara trades, as she always has done, on her tawdry sexual appeal to the cheaper end of the market. You'd think they'd have learned something during their decades of existence, amassed a fortune, acquired marketable skills, fled overseas. But they're locked – as the non-linear narrative highlighting key moments of their evolution illustrates – into past patterns of behavior. It's going to take some major emotional upheaval for either of them to move on.
That's where Byzantium doesn't quite deliver. Vampire stories should hiss and spit with palpable danger and the heightened drama we expect from immortal beings, but the drama here is too soapy and suburban. Ronan (who managed to command some genuine menace in Hanna) channels the ethereal waif too effectively to be perceived as vicious or threatening, and Arterton is too busy parading her physical wares in a succession of skimpy outfits to be truly murderous. The male gaze entraps her from the get-go, focusing on her perfectly pert buttocks as she gyrates in a strip club and subsequently lingering uncomfortably long on the breasts bulging from her corset, her rear view in wet-look leggings, her voluptuous, milk-white thighs as she lowers herself onto a paying customer.
It's a shame that, while it aspires to deliver something fresh when it comes to the representation of vampires, Byzantium contents itself with the oldest female stereotypes in town for its lead characters: the angel and the whore.