You have to feel bad for anyone trying to make a vampire film in today’s cinematic atmosphere. After Twilight turned the romantic monster into a sparkly teen romance, and True Blood went past the edge of camp into something else altogether, putting together a good anything about vampires is difficult. The nature of the vampire tale has been dragged down so far that anything serious feels off-kilter for any number of reasons.
Byzantium is one of these types of films, particularly given its origins.
Neil Jordan directs the film, having created the modern vampire tale with Interview with the Vampire nearly 20 years ago, and it focuses on a mother/daughter vampire team. The film has a simple premise. Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) and Clara (Gemma Arterton) are a pair of vampires who’ve managed to survive since the Napoleonic Era. Eleanor is forever trapped as a teenager and Clara as a nubile young woman who attracts most men’s attention. They’ve been making their way over the years in secret, Clara working as a street walker and preying on those who would want a hooker’s services. Two hundred years after being turned they’ve managed to survive in the shadows.
We meet them in present day. Clara has her eyes set on Noel (Daniel Mays), a lonely man who just inherited the Byzantium Hotel. It was a great place but has become a dilapidated one. Before long, the Clara has transformed the Byzantium into a whore house. On the other side of the story Eleanor falls for Frank (Caleb Landry Jones) and her normal, quiet self manages to let out her dirty little secret.
The interesting thing is how Jordan portrays his vampires. They’re generic human beings, with no super powers nor allergens to sunlight/silver, but with the inability to live without blood. It’s an interesting decision because it plays against the easiness of the vampire genre; it makes the film much more about characters than it does working the traditional weaknesses into a story line.
It becomes a character study between two immortal creatures as they try and hide their existence in plain sight. For Clara her life is a deception; it’s about keeping anyone from finding out about her being a vampire. For Eleanor it’s a painful reality that she has a hard time abiding by.
All the while someone from their past is on their trail.
It’s a refreshing take on the genre as this is a story about people, not mythic creatures. Jordan has made this about two people cursed with immortality, trying to make their way through life, with profound mental issues to boot. If you were cursed with immortality and an unquenchable thirst to destroy your fellow man, how would you go through life? Clara and Eleanor have done unspeakable things and it’s made them profoundly damaged; Neil Jordan focuses on it and their reactions.
Clara is content to go through life, off the radar and always on the move. Eleanor has gone along to go along … but now can’t go along anymore. It makes for an interesting dynamic between the two; this is all of the angst of being a vampire but without any of the cool powers.
In an era where the vampire film has become about teen angst and violence, Byzantium brings out the human aspect of the myth. Before they were vampires they were messed up human beings … and now with immortality we get to see what would happen when immortality is granted to those with the least desire and aptitude for it.
There are a plethora of interviews with the cast, et al, and the film’s trailer is included as well.
MPI Home Video presents Byzantium. Directed by Neil Jordan. Written by Moira Buffini. Starring Saoirse Ronan, Barry Cassin, Gemma Arterton, David Heap, Warren Brown, Ruby Snape, Thure Lindhardt, Jenny Kavanagh, Caleb Landry Jones. Running time: 118 minutes. Rated R. Released: October 29, 2013.