Neil Jordan has always been interested in the supernatural, from the werewolves of The Company Of Wolves to the mermaids of Ondine. He also had great success with bloodsuckers in Interview With The Vampire. Now he returns to vamps for a very different movie, Byzantium.
Clara (Gemma Arterton) and her younger sister, Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), are constantly moving around, and this time end up in a run-down English seaside town, where they are taken in by the gentle Noel (Daniel Mays). Clara is soon back to her old tricks of setting herself up as a brothel madam, while Eleanor attempts to once more settle into a new environment.
However the women have a secret – they’re not really a young woman and her teenage sister, they’re actually vampires (although that word is rarely used) who live on human blood. They’re also 200 years old and on the run. As Eleanor gets closer to a local boy called Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), she gets ever closer to revealing her secret and the story that led her becoming a vampire.
I’d heard mixed reports about Byzantium and for about the first 40-minutes I thought the naysayers were right. While it looks very pretty and elegant, it’s a little slow, meandering and pleased with itself – so keen on being a different kind of vampire movie that it never really finds its own groove. However just before the halfway mark it finds its feet and suddenly becomes a lot more interesting.
As Eleanor slowly reveals the story of how she became a bloodsucker, Byzantium begins to pull together, exploring the situation the apparently young woman now finds herself in – stuck in a teenager’s body and endlessly having to go through same things over and over again. There’s always the promise of something more, but also the knowledge that it probably won’t last.
The film’s ideas of good and bad become ever more complex, as does the relationship between Clara and Eleanor, whose loyalty to each sways between being incredibly admirable and in danger of destroying them both. As the sense of threat creeps ever higher, Byzantium pulls you in ever deeper.
That’s quite a good thing as there are certain things, particularly in the women’s back story, that are a little difficult to take seriously, but the central relationships between the two women, as well as between Eleanor and Frank, overcome the flaws and ensure you’ll want to know how it’s all going to turn out.
It’s interesting that on the surface Byzantium takes in a lot of the same themes as Twilight – the love between a teenage-looking vampire and a mortal, the issues of appearing one age but actually being another, the need to hide your true identity – but this film takes them in very different and more interesting directions. This is partly because while it may be about vampires, this is a movie that’s more interested in humanity and how the good and bad in people can sometimes be pretty much the same thing.
The special features aren’t that numerous but they are interesting. There are several interviews with the cast and crew, but the best addition is a Q&A from the film’s Glasgow Frightfest premiere. Neil Jordan, Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton and producer Stephen Woolley talks about the movie, why they decided to make it, as well as their motivations. It’s well worth a look.
Overall Verdict: Byzantium does take a long time to get as the early parts are slightly tedious, but once it finds its feet it becomes an intriguing, surprisingly engrossing film that takes vampires in an interesting direction – not least being far more intrigued by the women’s human rather than vampire sides.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac