Neil Jordan returns to the vampire film, this time with chicks
Directed by Neil Jordan
Cast: Gemma Arterton, Saoirse Ronan, Sam Riley, Jonny Lee Miller, Caleb Landry Jones, Tom Hollander, Daniel Mays
Is it even possible to inflict a new twist on the poor, overly twisted genre of vampire thriller? In these postmodern times, we've seen vampire-as-the-next-step-in-evolution (I Am Legend), vampire-as-self-obsessed-Helmut-Newton-fashion-plate (The Hunger), vampire-as-sleepwalking-porn-star (any Jean Rollin film), vampire-as-mentally-ill-home-invader (Martin), vampire-as-ornery-trailer-trash (Near Dark), vampire-as-homosexual-emerging-from-the-closet (Interview with the Vampire) and vampire-as-black-intellectual-drug-addict (Ganja & Hess). And, really, that's just the tip of the vampireberg. What could possibly be left?
Well, if Neil Jordan's Byzantium can't claim to introduce anything truly new, it certainly does a highly entertaining job of gluing together elements from other successful vampire films and adding copious amounts of Gemma Arterton's cleavage. You've got your pair of lady vampires hiding out in a dilapidated seaside resort (Daughters of Darkness), your vampire secret society hell-bent on revenge (Interview with the Vampire again), your sad, lonely vampire who really just needs a friend (Let the Right One In) and your hey-let's-start-a-brothel subplot (Risky Business, oh wait).
Arterton is Clara, bodacious stripper breadwinner and overly protective mother of glum, sensitive Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan). Unlike her more extroverted parent, Eleanor dresses modestly, practices piano and writes the story of her life—longhand—over and over again, only to crumple up the pages and throw them away. Eleanor's victims are senior citizens who secretly want to end it all. When we witness her first kill, a deeply weary old man with a broken heart, we also learn that these vampires (or "sucreants" as the film renames them) are a bit different: no fangs here, just an extra-sharp thumbnail like an insect stinger that does the needed bloodletting. When a mysterious stranger attacks Clara, the sucreants flee their old life and end up in a run-down resort hotel (the Byzantium of the title) just begging to be turned into a successful whorehouse. Naturally, while it pays the bills, this enterprise conflicts with Eleanor's more erudite leanings (enrolling in a creative writing course, visiting the local retirement home's piano bar where she knocks out virtuoso pieces and attracts the attention of a young, terminally ill waiter). Soon romance of a sort blooms, and Eleanor's desire to share her story can no longer be contained. Before you can say "You never understood me, Mom," it all starts to fall apart.
The story, written for the screen by Moira Buffini from her stage play, spans the 200 years from the Napoleonic Wars to the present with flashbacks, lots of flashbacks. Eventually, Clara's beginnings as a peasant girl impressed into a life of prostitution (curiously played in the flashback scenes by an actress who looks nothing like Gemma Arterton), Eleanor's isolated life in a private orphanage and the secret ritual of becoming a sucreant are all revealed, as well as the reason Clara is always looking over her shoulder.
It's a bit hard to swallow that after 200 years the mother-daughter relationship of Clara and Eleanor suddenly becomes so fragile. It seems like things would have melted down (or been solidified) long before now, but what do I know? I'm sure it's hard to be a sucreant.
But Byzantium has two strengths that carry it through any logical shortcomings: the believable anguish of Saoirse Ronan's unhappy Eleanor and the visual sweep of the marvelous location photography. The decrepit seaside resort mirrors the decay of Eleanor's heart in such a purely cinematic way that it's hard to quibble with the results. And Jordan can be forgiven for swiping from Interview with the Vampire, since he directed it himself 20 years ago.
Twinkly Mormon vampires were very successful with a certain segment of the population recently, but for every Twihard, there is a Twater, and for every Twater there is a Twater-hater. This is no way to advance the genre—splitting us apart, driving a stake through the heart of our beautiful pro-vampire community. Byzantium bridges the divide with chaste romance, revenge and lots and lots of blood.