Film Review: Byzantium

Director Neil Jordan takes another look at vampires in this most original and beautiful&#8212;and adult&#8212;movie treatment of the genre to date. Unfortunately, the film&#8217;s logical audience&#8212;i.e., young female fans of the <i>Twilight</i> se

It has been nearly 20 years since Neil Jordan directed Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice’s ultimately tragic story of two gorgeous and immortal male vampires (Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt) and their mostly female victims. In Byzantium, the two leading vampires are also gorgeous and immortal, but they are female (a mother/daughter duo yet) and their “victims” are mostly the unfortunate (or perhaps just old and infirm) men they encounter.

This girl-power twist was the brainchild of screenwriter and playwright Moira Buffini, who was also inspired to make the mother, Clara (played by the beautiful Gemma Arterton), a prostitute—which, when you think about it, is the only always-in-demand profession for a girl who has to keep herself and her teenage daughter Eleanor (a pensive Saoirse Ronan) alive for over 200 years.

Whatever ribald humor one might find in this situation is not intended, for the carryings-on in Byzantium are quite serious indeed. There’s none of that nonsense, for instance, about vampires being able to fly, or never going out in the sunlight for fear of having their bodies dissolve into ash. Au contraire, Clara and Eleanor (who pose as sisters) look and act just like any other 21st-century, bustier-wearing prostitute mother and her moody, hoodie-wearing teenage daughter.

Except, of course, because they’re vampires, Clara and Eleanor do need to consume human blood in order to survive. Their method of killing off victims is unique, however: Whenever they get thirsty, their neatly manicured, retractable thumbnails suddenly grow very long and just sharp enough to slice cleanly through a carotid artery. Then they do the neck-sucking bit like any other “soucriant”—the generic term Buffini’s script prefers over “vampire.”

Only in flashbacks do we learn that Clara was born in 1804, and as a teenage beauty was ravished by the powerful Ruthven (Jonny Lee Miller). The daughter born from that union is raised in an orphanage while Ruthven condemns Clara to a life of prostitution. Years later, Clara overhears Ruthven talking to the enigmatic Darvell (Sam Riley), who reveals that he has discovered the secret of eternal life. Clara decides to steal the secret (in scenes filmed inside the magnificent library at Dublin’s Trinity College) and then goes with Darvel into a forbidding stone cairn set in the middle of a beautiful but treacherous waterfall—with water that turns blood-red when the vampire transition is complete. After rescuing Eleanor from the orphanage, Clara puts her daughter through the same frightening ritual—because immortality without someone to share it with can be, you know, intolerable.

A couple of centuries later, like now, the two women wind up in a seedy seaside resort (supposedly in Ireland but filmed in the U.K. town of Hastings) where one of Clara’s johns is a lonely soul named Noel (Daniel Mays) who has just inherited a rundown beachfront hotel called the Byzantium which, Clara decides, will work nicely as a brothel. Eleanor disapproves of her sister/mother’s profession, naturally, and always has. She spends most of her days mooning around, writing about her life, and then throwing away the pages because it’s “a story I can never tell.” But when Eleanor meets a sickly young man, Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), he encourages her to sign up for a creative-writing course, where the teacher demands that whatever she writes, it must be true. (Yea, verily, woe betide that teacher.)

The action picks up when some mysterious, black-clad men (who initially appear to be cops) follow a trail of dead bodies with punctured carotids, and begin to close in on Clara (who sucks blood mostly from bad, misogynistic guys) and Eleanor (who kindly seeks out old-age pensioners and others who are ready to die). The men in black turn out to be the same members of the vampire “brotherhood”—including the evil Ruthven and sexy Darvell—who’ve been chasing Clara and Eleanor for a long, long time.

The wild, operatic ending of Byzantium comes as a bit of a shock, but, like the rest of this film, it is done with such high style and deadly (pardon the pun) seriousness, it ultimately seems the only way to wind up this creepy Gothic tale. Speaking of style, Gemma Arterton (who’ll be popping up in several upcoming, star-packed vehicles) is absolute perfection as the sexual temptress Clara, and Saoirse Ronan is equally good as the typical brooding teenager who just needs someone who understands her.

Byzantium may or may not satisfy the romantic yearnings of the young girls who apparently live to see movies about vampires. So the question is—why? Why did such brilliant talents as screenwriter Moira Buffini and director Neil Jordan and their terrific cast put so much effort and artistry into making a beautiful, serious and adult vampire movie—a genre that’s already been so extensively chewed over and sucked dry, and of minimal interest to most adults?