‘Byzantium’ ups the stakes in the vampire tradition
BY BRUCE INGRAM June 27, 2013 12:22PM
Eleanor Saoirse Ronan
Clara Gemma Arterton
Frank Caleb Landry Jones
Noel Daniel Mays
Darvell Sam Riley
Ruthven Jonny Lee Miller
IFC Films presents a film directed by Neil Jordan. Written by Moira Buffini. Running time: 118 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for bloody violence, sexual content and language). Opening Friday at Landmark Century Cinemas.
Updated: July 30, 2013 6:25AM
Mother/daughter conflict runs deeper — and much, much longer — than usual in this gorgeous, brooding, fascinatingly female-centric vampire saga, which also gushes waterfalls of blood.
Directed with gothic pizzazz by Oscar-winner Neil Jordan (“The Crying Game,” “Interview with a Vampire”), “Byzantium” tells the 200-year story of teenage Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) and her mother Clara (Gemma Arterton), who have decidedly different attitudes about the vampire lifestyle. While old-school Clara is all about sex and violence (she works as a lap dancer/prostitute and pops someone’s head off with a garrote within the first 10 minutes), convent-raised Eleanor takes a kinder, gentler approach, providing welcome release to the old and infirm.
While Clara has strict rules about secrecy as a matter of survival, Eleanor has an increasing desire to unburden her conscience by telling her story — even if only by writing it down in her journal and destroying it.
That’s the unapologetically literate device that Moira Buffini (who honed her 19th-century chops adapting Cary Fukanaga’s “Jane Eyre” three years ago) uses to blend past and present, gothic and modern, in her complex story, which reveals its secrets in flashback, one puzzle piece at a time.
After a bit of preliminary ultra-violence involving a misogynist brotherhood of vampires out to get them, Clara and Eleanor find themselves where their story began two centuries earlier, in an unnamed English coastal town. Clara has worked as a prostitute to support her daughter since being forced into the trade at roughly her age, and so as soon as they arrive, she sets up shop and scores very nicely with her first client. Decent, grieving, clueless Noel (Daniel Mays) sobbingly informs her he has run down the business he inherited from his recently deceased mother: the once-grand Byzantium hotel.
Clara quickly turns the situation to her advantage by seducing Noel, transforming the Byzantium into a brothel and providing a stable home for Eleanor. One where she can go to school, mourn about the past and strike up a romance with a pale, sickly young man (Caleb Landry Jones) who, of course, has leukemia. And where the vampiress-averse brotherhood, including one (Sam Riley of “On the Road”) who once had tender feelings for Clara, can come closer and closer to tracking them down.
It takes a while, but the old-fashioned pleasure of watching a well-told story unfold eventually becomes the chief satisfaction in “Byzantium,” though there are other things to enjoy as well. The film has a somber, melancholy beauty, thanks to cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (“The Place Beyond the Pines”) that nicely complements its occasional gouts of gore.
It also features remarkable performances by Arterton (utterly at odds with her sweet choir director in the recently released “Unfinished Song”) and Ronan (whose ethereal, haunted quality makes her ideal for this role). It also includes several eyebrow-raising departures from vampire tradition.
There are no fangs in “Byzantium,” for one thing. Instead, the vampires employ pointed thumbnails to poke holes in their victims, can-opener style. Also, vampires can only become vampires by making a pilgrimage to an ominous stone hut on a mystical island, site of the aforementioned waterfalls of blood.
Most radical of all, being a vampire in “Byzantium” doesn’t mean you get to stop working for a living. In fact, you have to keep doing it forever.