It's kind of like a better version of "Twilight", though I might just be saying that because this is probably the closest thing we're going to get when it comes to Saoirse Ronan making an apology for being in a certain adaptation of a Stephanie Meyer book earlier this year. Granted, she did this film before "The Host", and they took a while to actually give it a wide release, but hey, this film is so under-marketed that no one really knows anything about its release, so as far as we know, this is Ronan's attempt to make up for both "The Host" and "Twilight"... the latter of which has apparently redefined the vampire mythology so much that if we hear about a film regarding a young vampire girl, we immediately jump to comparisons to "Twilight". Curse you, Stephanie Meyer, for you're evil mission to scar the name of cool supernatural stuff has proved successful, because now that I think about it, this is probably more in the realm, or rather, the "vein" (You know, because vampires... and blood in veins... and stuff...) of, say, "The Vampire Chronicles", though, I might be saying that because this marks the big comeback to vampire films by Neil Jordan, the director of "Interview with the Vampire". I find it amazing that a film about vampires was about as successful as anything Jordan has ever done, and it's taken him almost 20 years to do another one, probably because where the leads in this film have sold their souls to some pretty unholy entities, Jordan sold his soul to his homeland Ireland, because he has since made films so Irish that the only way they could get him back into vampire films is by promising him that this would be a joint British [u]and[/u] Irish project. Shoot, I guess that means that the Brits are getting back into oppressing the Irish, because the only Irish star who Jordan could get in this film was Saoirse Ronan, who has "literally" never kept her Irish accent in any film, and, as sure as sunshine, is showing off her English accent like a talented little girl in this movie. I condescend, yes, because I still can't believe that this wittle sweetheart is alweady 19 years owd, but hey, at least she's wise beyond her years enough to realize that the Irish aren't terribly marketable in the film business, as this film will tell you, because as much as I tout "Interview with a Vampire" as a considerable success for Neil Jordan, this co-Irish vampire film project isn't likely to be nearly as successful as "Interview with a Vampire". That's shame, because I like this film, and yet, I can't say that there isn't some blood sucked out of this promising project by a couple of factors.
There are some almost subtle spurts of exposition here and there throughout the subtle film, which, quite frankly, kind of needs ambiguity in order to work, so it's not like this film is too undercooked, yet there is a touch too much undercooking in certain places, to where you find difficulty in fully ignoring some distancingly questionable aspects to the characters who drive this drama, even with their ambiguity, and yet, the final product still takes plenty of time to drag its feet. There's a certain thinness to this drama's story concept, so excess material isn't too big of a deal, yet it still stands, padding things out as repetitious, though not quite as much as the long, often distancingly arty stretches of meditation upon nothing that, before too long, take over the narrative and play about as big a part as anything in giving this film its two-hour runtime. That means that the film gets to be pretty aimless at times, wandering along and trying to find some point to meander to, and I guess that would be fine, considering how well-done the film is in plenty of places, were it not for the atmosphere, or at least problematic moments in the atmosphere. Neil Jordan establishes a very somberly intense mood throughout this film, as if he's working on crafting some kind of a neo-gothic drama, and such subtlety is rarely, if ever too blanding, and is often genuinely effective, yet there is only so much dynamicity to tone to liven things up, and after a whole, things not only run together in feel, but wear on you as bland and, by extension, reflective of the not-so intriguing attributes to this generally intriguing film. There's a good bit of potential, and it's debatable how right the Rotten Tomatoes consensus is in its boasting that this film "struggles to match its creepily alluring atmosphere with a suitably compelling story", but for every refreshing element, this film features a formulaic element, and for every piece of a intrigue, there is a hint of dramatic thinness, with sparse highlights in kick that go all the more stressed by the aforementioned expository shortcomings and pacing problems. The film is kind of a bland, and that's unfortunate, because this really could have been and almost is a rewarding effort, yet as things stand, you don't know enough about the core of this dramatically limited drama to put up with its dragging and challenging your investment, leaving the final product to fall beyond the brink of underwhelming. Of course, the film just barely makes such a tragic fall, being flawed, sure, but well-done enough places to compel more often than not, or at least attract on an aesthetic level.
Really aiming to create quite the modern gothic thriller, the makers of this film employed "The Devil's Backbone" and "Pan's Labyrinth" score composer Javier Navarrete to compose a soundtrack that may be formulaic in certain places, but is tastefully minimalist, with haunting intensity that goes broken up, if not flavored up by lovely sobriety, and in turn flavors up the mood of this neo-gothic drama, much like cinematography by Sean Bobbitt that breaks up its relatively flat moments with just about stunning moments, powered by chillingly sparse lighting and drained coloring that not only strengthens the bleak tone of the film, but often leaves the film to resemble some of a painting. The film's beauty is infrequent, but when things look good, boy, they sure are handsome, as this film has a very tasteful style about it that breathes life into the air as a neo-gothic work of art, even if its substance isn't quite up to par with its style. I wouldn't say that the film is more style than substance, but, like the RT consensus says, the final product's story kind of falls short, and yet, the reason why the film stands as somewhat underwhelming is because of storytelling shortcoming that emphasize natural shortcomings, because this story concept could have relatively easily be shaped into a strong drama, having thin and conventional spots, sure, but just as many refreshing elements to its mythology and narrative that are not only fascinating, but meaty, with subtle, yet complex layers and well-rounded characterization that go anchored by inspired acting, at least from one person in particular. The supporting cast is unevenly used, yet most every notable member of this roster of talents compel, it's just that the real onscreen force behind this drama is, of course, leading lady Saoirse Ronan, who is too underwritten to be all that outstanding, but once again proves herself to be one of the more, if not one of the most talented child performers, not just through yet another flawless faux accent, but through a quiet intensity that captures the anguish of the Eleanor Webb character, an isolated soul whose dark secrets have scarred her as lonely through the years with burden that, upon being really emphasized through heights in emotional punch by Ronan, bring the depths of this character drama to life. Again, due to underwriting, Ronan's performance is unable to be dynamic enough to be truly excellent, but it's still strong and compelling, more so than the story itself, or at least the storytelling, which, even then, plays about as big a part in bringing this effort to the brink of rewarding as it does in driving the final product just short of rewarding. Director Neil Jordan tells this story in a very steady fashion, and such steadiness blands things up much too much for compellingness to be sustained as consistently strong, yet compellingness never slips too far, largely thanks to the problematic atmosphere, which typically nails a brooding tone and reinforces a degree of tension, broken up by rather resonant glimpses into what could have been. There are moving moments and there are chilling moments here and there throughout the film, and while these highlights are too limited in quantity for the final product to truly reward, they bring the film close enough to a rewarding point to be well worth experience, even if you do walk away hoping for a bit more.
Overall, this ambiguous film gets to be too underdeveloped at times, but is generally too dragged out with repetitious, if not aimless excess material, made all the more glaring by atmospheric bland spells that also emphasize natural shortcomings, of which there are enough for the final product to fall just short of rewarding, but still come close, as there is enough haunting score work, gothically lovely cinematography, and meat to a relatively refreshing story - carried by a strong performance by Saoirse Ronan, as well as by effective moments in Neil Jordan's brooding atmosphere - for "Byzantium" to stand as a generally engaging, if flawed modern vampire gothic.
2.75/5 - Decent