Director: Neil Jordan
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, Daniel Mays, Caleb Landry Jones, Sam Reilly, Johnny Lee Miller
Running Time: 118 minutes
Release Date: May 31st
Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) is a teenager who writes what appears to be a journal, living in what looks like a council flat. Meanwhile Clara (Gemma Arterton) is a lap dancer who’s chased out of her workplace by a mysterious, almost otherworldly stranger. We soon learn that these two women are vampires, running from something, and apparently living hand to mouth. Their journey takes them to a small British seaside town (Brighton, perhaps?) where they’ll forge relationships with two very different men; Clara shacks up with a lonely, shy man and swiftly turns his crumbling hotel into a brothel, while Eleanor befriends a shy teenager with health problems.
The fantastic opening scenes of Byzantium suggest a rousing and fresh take on the horror genre; a mix of vampire movie and fugitive thriller. But once they settle into maybe-Brighton, it slows down and becomes a downbeat drama. It has a strange tone; sad, melancholic, and mysterious. This is a very rare vampire story that has working-class, cash-strapped bloodsuckers who are simultaneously predators and victims. It’s still interesting, but will prove dour and slow for some tastes.
Despite its flaws, Byzantium is a good fit for Neil Jordan, who’s working from Moira Buffini’s adaptation of her own stage play. He explored similar terrain with two of his best films; the bizarre and lavish horror/mock biopic Interview with the Vampire and the allegorical erotic fairytale Company of Wolves. If Interview is about the boredom and ennui of immortality, Byzantium is about its loneliness.
Not for the first time, Jordan coaxes memorable performances from both familiar and new actors: Saoirse Ronan is equally creepy and affecting as Eleanor while Gemma Arterton is maternal, fierce and mercilessly sexy as Clara. Newcomer Caleb Landry Jones, who plays Frank, has undeniable star quality too; vulnerable and intriguing.
The film drags its heels on more than a few occasions, but springs to life in the melodramatic flashbacks set around the 19th century. These full-blooded scenes show the naive Clara meeting the dashing, but sinister Captain Ruthven (Johnny Lee Miller) and show the process of becoming a vampire; a fresh idea involving caves, a remote Irish island, body doubles and waterfalls of blood.
Byzantium is a mixed success; slack of pace and not wholly satisfying, but sincere, strange and original. Despite its shortcomings, it has enough good ideas for audiences to sink their teeth into.