In 1994, Irish director Neil Jordan had the biggest hit of his career with the Anne Rice adaptation Interview with the Vampire. If the film had been a similarly successful affair today, it almost certainly would have marked the beginning of a massive franchise, but for Jordan it was a one-and-done affair (despite the fact that the film came with the subtitle The Vampire Chronicles). The director quickly returned to making the sort of small-to-mid-budget films that comprise most of his filmography, exploring new genres and ideas at every turn. Nearly twenty years after the release of Interview with the Vampire, Jordan returned to the vampire subgenre with Byzantium, an original tale penned by Moira Buffini. It's a slightly smaller film than Interview, but very much in the same vein: a classical vampire tale that melds the worlds of the past and present in a fascinating, fragmented story.
The story begins in 2010, where teenage vampire Eleanor Webb (Saoirse Ronan, Hanna) and her mother Clara (Gemma Arterton, Tamara Drewe) learn that they must flee for their lives. It seems that Clara has done something to upset The Brethren, a group of powerful male vampires who are responsible for ensuring that certain rules are followed and that humanity does not learn about the existence of vampires. The two women flee to a quiet coastal village and take up residence in the Byzantium Hotel, which is run by a sad-sack loner named Noel (Daniel Mays, Atonement).
Byzantium opens as a chase movie of sorts, but quickly settles into something much quieter and more contemplative as Clara and Eleanor begin to form a new life for themselves. Eleanor is 200 years old and Clara is even older, but there is still a recognizable mother/daughter tension between them. Clara has always given Eleanor a very strict set of rules to live by, the most important of which is that Eleanor never tell anyone that she is a vampire. As such, Eleanor has never been able to form any serious relationships. After 200 years of solitude, she's grown hungry for a more substantial connection with another person. She grows close to Frank (Caleb Landry Jones, Antiviral), a soft-spoken local boy suffering from leukemia. After much hesitation, Eleanor decides that she'll tell Frank everything.
In this case, “everything” mostly involves the story of how Clara became a vampire many years ago. In extended flashback sequences, we witness how Clara met the brutish Captain Ruthvan (Jonny Lee Miller, Trainspotting), who raped her and forced her into a life of prostitution. I won't spoil the details of how this development eventually led to Clara's transformation, but I will say that the tale is a compelling one.
The film may feel slow and a little aimless at first, but your patience will be rewarded. Byzantium gets richer and more absorbing as it proceeds, and after a while you realize that scenes which might have felt like aimless noodling were in fact laying important groundwork for the assorted dramatic revelations of the film's second half. The flashback sequences mesh beautifully with the present-day scenes, as an elegant, old-fashioned vampire melodrama (the Bram Stoker side of the film) is woven through the angst-driven story of a 200-year-old teenager confronting her romantic desires and overwhelming emotions (the Twilight side of the film). It's a gothic fantasy, it's a humble love story, it's a slow-burn mystery and it's a violent thriller, and Jordan manages to juggle all of these elements without losing sight of the larger story he's telling or the tone he's established.
Both of the central performances are excellent. Ronan plays a woman who's been around for centuries with convincing gravitas – she's lost her patience for acting like a teenager, and occasionally finds herself speaking with an eloquent authority that tends to unsettle the unsuspecting “grown-ups” in her life. Every so often, she'll allow us a brief glimpse of Eleanor's private sadness; the longing for connection that she must never acknowledge. Though Clara is older, Arterton plays her as a much less mature (and far more modern) woman who has little interest in granting herself the sort of cultural education that Eleanor has pursued. She uses an abundance of slang when she speaks (“I hate the way you talk!” Eleanor snaps after Clara peppers a few sentences with casual profanity), and continues to engage in the world's oldest profession rather than teaching herself a new trade. Arterton and Ronan generate real sparks in their scenes together, forming the sort of mutual contempt/love that only a parent and child can generate.
Jordan's films are usually fairly compelling from a visual standpoint, and Byzantium stands as one of his most gorgeous efforts of recent years. The flashback scenes are particularly striking, benefitting from elegant cinematography and persuasive period design. There's one recurring image so awe-inspiring that it feels as if it has been pulled directly from a lost Werner Herzog masterpiece. Javier Navarette's score is a winner, too, smartly employing modern, atonal horror scoring during the present-day scenes and giving the flashbacks a dark romanticism.
Byzantium isn't a groundbreaking vampire movie, but I'm impressed by the way Jordan and Buffini have essentially taken storytelling beats from several different kinds of vampire films and made them part of a single, satisfying film. Give it a little time and you'll likely find yourself drawn into its multi-layered tale of love, revenge and secrets. It's a fine effort from a director whose work is always interesting and often exceptional.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 118 minutes
Release Year: 2013