Of course, such a highly general observation is not entirely justified, and no one film is going to change the way that an entire body of tropes and conventions are perceived. But for those who remain unconvinced about women being able to be more than victims in horror, Byzantium is very much a step in the right direction. Neil Jordan's third foray into vampires is driven by two well-written, very different female characters, whose depiction provides a unique and intriguing take on a familiar mythology. While not quite as perfectly formed as Cronos or Let The Right One In, it still comes with a hearty recommendation.
First and foremost, Byzantium is a clean aesthetic break from the current crop of often anaemic vampire films. If you're sick of Twilight and the stories promoted by its success, then Jordan's film really is the perfect antidote. Not only does it make vampires scary again (as they always should be), but its visuals are really quite enticing, being a blend of old-fashioned Gothic and distinctly modern touches. In doing so it provides a way in for new viewers coming to vampires for the very first time, while also appeasing the dyed-in-the-wool horror fans who like their bloodsuckers with a bit more graceful elegance.
Vampire films are often highly sexual, whether it's the heaving bosoms of the Hammer era or the AIDS subtext in Jordan's previous offering, Interview with the Vampire. Byzantium is also a highly sexual film, but it presents sexuality in two different forms across two different time periods. Its period section, with its ravishing Gothic sensibility, focusses on the exploitation of Gemma Arterton's character, who is sold into sexual slavery and becomes a vampire to free herself from it. The modern section, which has an appealing lurid quality, see that same character using sex as a source of power, luring helpless male victims to their deaths.
The sexual duality of Byzantium is consolidated by its narrative duality, namely the decision to tell its story through a split time-frame. Many stories like this emphasise the ageless nature of vampires, including Let The Right One In: it's the appealing dilemma of remaining physically prime at the cost of losing your eternal soul. It's a risky strategy, having to jump between the two time periods, but Jordan accomplishes it by setting up our two main characters very adeptly in the present, before the long excursions into their pasts begin.
This decision also pays off because of the surreal, almost hallucinatory quality the film has. Jordan's transitions between past and present are dream-like, with Saoirse Ronan's character spotting younger versions of herself walking on the modern-day beach. Much of the film deals with the characters having to return to and confront the site of a dark act that was perpetrated against them, and like a lot of great ghost stories the film uses images like this to play tricks on us. Sean Bobbett, who shot Hunger and Shame with Steve McQueen, strikes a great balance between the sleaze of 21st-century sex workers and the ethereal quality afforded by the shimmering sea.
Byzantium's visual decisions are complimented by small adjustments that it makes to the mythology of vampires. Aside from the story being driven predominantly by female vampires, the film puts its own unique twist on many of the key images or components of the genre. Rather than have the vampires biting someone's neck with fangs, Jordan gives them a fingernail that extends at will to gently slit a neck or wrist. Both of them are able to stay out in the daylight, due to changes in the origin story which removes bats and thereby any nocturnal aspects. Instead of being bitten by a winged demon, those wanting to become vampires are taken to an island filled with dark caves and rivers which turn to blood.
Byzantium is, at its heart, a film about women who have been ostracised by polite society and are attempting to carve out their own identity. Just as the horror genre is often accused of entrenched misogyny, so the vampire order that Clara is part of is misogynistic, with female vampires being forbidden from creating new vampires, on pain on death. Being regarded as outcasts and constantly on the run from the law (or the vampire equivalent), the mother and daughter have to use various underhand methods to stay alive while remaining undetected.
Given this intriguing set-up, the film could disappoint us instantly by being lazy with its characterisation. It could, in other words, regard all female vampires as being the same and thereby fall into the trap of regarding women as the 'other' to men. Fortunately, Moira Buffini's screenplay is far more nuanced than that, giving Clara and Eleanor very different desires, methods and motivations while keeping the bond between them believable. What we get is a very interesting study of gender and gender politics within the confines of a meaningful, well-written relationship - something that is sadly all too rare in modern horror.
The mother-daughter relationship that anchors Byzantium is driven by conflict between the differing methods and personalities of the two women. Clara's maternal bond to her daughter leads her to be protective of her, but in doing so she smothers and represses her, giving her no space for freedom or development to realise whom she can really be. Clara's opportunism, including sex work, is contrasted with Eleanor's sense of tact and reserve: while her mother takes whatever comes their way, she genuinely befriends her victims and only releases those who are too frail and ready to die. The way that her victims mistake her for a delivering angel is a striking contrast to the seedy manner in which her mother often operates.
The film is also interesting for the way it handles its romantic interactions, principally the blossoming yet stilted love between Frank and Eleanor. Frank suffers from leukaemia and increasingly yearns for death as a means of release from his burdens; when he finds out Eleanor's secret, he falls for her all the more believing that said release is close at hand. Eleanor is deeply conflicted on this issue: having been dead since she was 16, she knows the downsides of living forever, but her desire for contact (and to spite her mother in the process) prevent her from pushing him away.
Many 'young adult' stories would use such an encounter as an excuse to water down their female character by making her overly sensitive. But Jordan is always careful to maintain the story's horror elements, specifically how dangerous Eleanor is. After Frank falls off his bike, he starts bleeding profusely: his treatment includes drugs to stop his blood from clotting. As Eleanor helps him, she is constantly fighting the urge to drink said blood, resorting in the end to sucking on the handkerchief he held to his wrist before his parents arrived. It's a wonderfully sad and chilling moment which shows how impossible their relationship is.
The performances in Byzantium are of a very high calibre. Saoirse Ronan continues to be one of the most reliable young talents around, turning in another performance of grace, poise and emotional complexity. Gemma Arterton has been very annoying in the past (in Quantum of Solace, for example), but here she is very well-cast and convincingly conveys a wide range of emotions. Elsewhere Sam Riley remains as intimidating here as he was in the remake of Brighton Rock, and Jonny Lee Miller is suitably foul as the misogynistic Captain.
There are a couple of small problems with Byzantium which prevent it from being a great vampire film. While all the themes or ideas it raises are very interesting, and executed with intelligence, they are not all developed to a satisfying conclusion or left open in a way that invites further discussion: they are left as loose ends which are not long enough to tie up in any way. Additionally, some of the school scenes are a little clichéd, with the film treading too close to Dead Poets Society for comfort. These scenes play a part in the story, but are written very out of step with everything else.
Byzantium is an arresting and intriguing vampire film which challenges the conventions of the genre while maintaining its livelihood. Its gender politics and examination of misogyny are thoroughly appealing, being driven by two very convincing performances, sharp direction and stunning visuals. Only time will tell whether it will become as well-regarded as its generic predecessors, but until that day arrives, it will remain an underrated British gem.
So yes the title of the film actually refers to the hotel where the two homeless vamps shelter. The whole story is set within the town of Hastings, Kent on the south coast of England, didn't get that at first mind you, I thought it was up north somewhere. The two female vampires have lived for over two hundred years and their story originates around the Napoleonic Wars. Ever since that time they have survived on human blood and tried their best not to get noticed, but as time goes by it gets harder.
What is so interesting about this new angle to old vampire lore is females are not allowed to be vampires, yes you heard me. In this universe being an undead nightwalker is reserved for men only and passed on through the ages to chosen males of whom the current vampire takes a shine to, or sees promise in. So its basically like an old boys club. The main female lead (Arterton) steals a chance to become a vampire and of course turns her daughter (Ronan) too...and this is the main crux of the film. They have broken scared ancient laws and are being persued by male vamps who want to destroy the daughter (they accepted the mother on condition she didn't break their law on turning another female).
This is not the only change to vampire folklore that Jordan makes, in order to keep the whole concept fresh and somewhat more realistic or believable there are no fangs here, yes that's right no fangs. All blood letting is through the use of an extending sharp finger nail, sounds weak but it works (unless you break the nail! then what do you do!!?), but they do still drink from the wound as you'd expect.
The way in which vampires are created/born is turned on its head, it involves a scared secret mysterious island where the chosen must travel to (how has no one ever found this place though??). There they must enter a primitive cave/dwelling where their soul is taken. There aren't any crucifixes, garlic, stakes through the heart, coffins or any other cliched horror guff, vampires can be killed like any other regular human, although cutting off the head still seems definitive. Must also point out that sunlight bares no hindrance for vampires in this world, although they do prefer the darkness.
Yet despite these changes, visually the film is very familiar. Elements from Jordan's previous vampire classic 'Interview with the Vampire' can be seen throughout here. The whole story could easily be another chapter from the Anne Rice universe. We see the tale through the eyes of both the mother and the daughter but mainly the mother. Lots of flashbacks from the 18th century depicting what happens to the mother, how she turns, how she has her daughter and the decisions she has to make to protect and turn her daughter, her general quality of life in that era. We also see similar things from the daughters point of view also.
Hadn't really thought that much of Gemma Arterton until now, she really nails her character here. A cocky, confident, cockney female who has clearly grown accustomed to the vampire lifestyle and has no issue in killing men for the good of humanity and to protect herself and her daughter. She was practically born into a world of prostitution and has carried on with the profession all through the ages making her tough. Obviously the femme fatale and eye candy of the film (gotta have a sexy female vamp right?), Arterton is undeniably beautiful and very cute making it hard to not wanna be a vampire alongside her or at least get snuffed out by her hand (if you gotta go).
The daughter is played by Saoirse Ronan and I admit I've never heard of her but she has the kind of looks that make me feel she could end up in a lot of horror flicks. Those kind of striking yet eerie Sissy Spacek looks that work very well in horror and dramatic roles. Her performance here is just as good as Arterton, probably better but you can't really compare as the characters are very different.
The daughter is a somber character, very heartfelt, merciful and sympathetic (yet no cockney accent?), she only takes the lives of elderly people, sick people (although wouldn't that risk her own life? can vampires catch anything from blood in this universe?) people who consent to it, which is nice but I'd imagine that would make life much harder for her. Probably why she dislikes being an immortal bloodsucker and resents her mother for it, the lives they must lead. It doesn't help of course that she falls for a young lad played by Caleb Landry Jones who looks and dresses like a character out of 'Children of the Corn' (hell even that guys name is like something out of an 80's horror, country bumpkin psycho).
The visuals are half and half in that half of the time we are in cloudy rainy Hastings which is kinda depressing, and the other half we are in 18th century Hastings. The 18th century sequences are nicely done, subtle and not overblown with massive CGI land/seascapes, merely the odd galleon out to sea, open countryside and a lot of decent interior sets. Costumes are lavish as you would expect but there isn't much effort on the vampire look, no paleness or glowing eyes, just regular looking people. If you weren't in the know the film could easily be a BBC drama, this is not a big gothic Hollywood production with fancy decadent sets and heroic fight sequences.
Everyone in the film puts in a good performance (including Jonny Lee Miller), that coupled with Jordan's keen artistic eye that encapsulates the typical grimy, gloomy, scuzzy English coastal seaside town against the romantic visuals of 18th century England, makes for a superb dark fantasy tale. Shame it has been somewhat overlooked with a limited release, highly recommended for all fans of the genre.
Byzantium follows two sisters who are the only female vampires in the world who have seek shelter at a local resort. Byzantium breaks new ground and challenges the genre with new ideas. These vampires can lead normal lives walking in the sunlight and obtain immortality by different means over getting bitten by another vampire. It's an original take on familiar creatures while keeping some elements we love. So no crosses, no coffins, no missing mirror reflection, no garlic make an appearance, but what does remain are their charm to lure in their victims and cold nature to kill. Our protagonists goals are relatable and their life stories are intriguing. We slowly learn of our protagonists past adding the dynamic to our protagonists relationship: with one being raised in an orphanage and the other forced to go to desperate measures for money. These two different ideologies of thoughts make ways to many realistic conversations between the two central female vampires on how to live as both struggle to survive from environment to environment for a decent life. Every character holds an importance in the film. Not just in key events, but explorations of the acceptance of death, loyalty, and reluctance to harm. If the plot has any flaw it comes in the climax. The climax is divert from it chilling atmosphere to a disappointing resolution. The reasoning behind this one action is explained, but lacks sufficient reasoning to justify it. Though a minor a complaint to compared to how brilliant everything was handled and how refreshing the experience is as a whole.
Saoirse Ronan delivers her best performance to date. Saoirse Ronan does a perfect job in giving her character whom you both understand and don't understand at the same time, a character whom you love and still are afraid of. She is reserved, quiet, intellectual, as oppose to actress Gemma Arterton who's the exact opposite. She is wicked, cruel, wretched, and seductively sinister. With both Ronan and Arterton together on screen you get an appropriate awkward chemistry that gets across the trouble relationship. The acting is terrific on all ends. Director Neil Jordan has created a one beautiful looking film. The color palette bounces between earthy ochre, pale whites and grays, to drizzled concrete exteriors and black rock mountains - and its atmosphere and composition all strike a specific, almost elegant chord. There are several images that will linger with you long after the film is over. The film contains a few moments of gore to satisfy those looking for some blood and all look convincing thanks to well done practical effects. Killing more brutally than the typical vampires we're accustomed.
Byzantium is a slow, but absorbing vampire film. It brings originality to a popular mythical creature doing so with complexity in its compelling characters struggles. Phenomenal performances from Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arterton drawing you into the film and becoming invested with them. All with beautiful imagery that will stick with you once after it ends. Byzantium returns maturity into the mythical creature of vampires in inventive form that should not be missed those craving for a compelling character driven film or chilling horror film.
Even though it eventually runs out of steam and lacks much in the way of a proper ending, there is still much to like with "Byzantium," as director Neil Jordan uses a gothic and violent approach to the formerly moribund vampire sub-genre, while downplaying the eroticism, in order to show the true power of stories. Yes, admittedly, you would have to be blind to not notice how sexy Gemma Arterton is here but Clara uses her allure purely as a business transaction while Saoirse Ronan's transitional age works towards her character's creepiness. The movie also neatly employs camerawork and location work to blend the past and present seamlessly as Clara and Eleanor try to escape the patriarchy of a past era and whose arcane rules they still play by. For example, Eleanor tells no lies but hypocritcally engages in mercy killings in order to feed which is definitely against the Church rules she is trying to follow.
I have to confess I had given up hope of ever enjoying a vampire movie again, thanks to the genre's recent dilution through the 'Twilight' series and its saturation on T.V. In recent times, the vampire has become a brooding bore, a development which ironically began with Jordan's 1994 'Interview with the Vampire'. The director's latest film feels like something of an apology for the monster he created with the mood of that film. 'Byzantium' gives us a modern "emo-vamp", courtesy of Ronan (finally finding a decent role after a string of duds like 'The Host' and 'The Lovely Bones'), but in Arterton we have a reminder of how thrilling and sexual this type of tale once was. Arterton's performance is electric; there hasn't been a vamp this sexy, or scary, since the heyday of Ingrid Pitt. She tears up every scene she appears in as she follows a pseudo-feminist form of revenge on the men she sees as exploiting females (we see her character corrupted into prostitution at a young age). Ronan, on the other hand, has a novel way of feeding her bloodlust; helping her elderly victims with a form of assisted suicide.
There are nods to classic vampire films (the seaside setting is an obvious nod to Harry Kumel's 'Daughters of Darkness', and the gothic flashbacks recall the glory days of Hammer), and barbed jibes at the current watered down Pattinson representation of the vampire (meeting Ronan's boyfriend, the pale faced Jones, Arterton mocks "you're just the type Eleanor goes for, as sexy as a pair of shoes"). Jordan even references his own 'The Company of Wolves', clothing Ronan in a red-hooded jacket. He also gives us not one, but two, shamelessly fake, decapitated rubber heads. This is clearly a director working in a genre he loves, whilst remembering to keep it fun, something many of today's horror film-makers seem to have forgotten.
The story is about a mother and daughter vampire duo. This is the third foray by Jordan into the world of the undead, following the poorly-received High Spirits in 1988 and his Oscar-nominated Interview with the Vampire, in 1994. It is not in the category of the Interview... but it is an interesting movie which entertains and delivers the thrill. To me, Neil Jordan's complex film about mother and daughter vampires it has substance and could be said that is vastly superior to the similar movies
There is an interwoven love story noticeable while following the both main characters but it was never too strong! It shows some intensity towards the end but it never reaches a crescendo... which I liked, because it is blending the two main threads of the story perfectly. The way screenwriter Moira Buffini (adapting her own stage play "A Vampire Story") does that with the other threads of history, folklore, feminist spirit and universal themes is outstanding.
If you are into movies which are elegant, with excellent balanced movements and classical editing of darker toned cinematography following an exquisite screenplay with a steady leadership of a director who knows what is he doing - pick this one. You won't regret!
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