Eighteen years after filming Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, Neil Jordan has returned to undead mythology with another adaptation, this time of a play by Moira Buffini. Eschewing the usual clichés, Byzantium, set in a rundown seaside town, is a moody, melancholy film that focuses on the complex relationship between a mother and a daughter who became vampires two centuries earlier.
Saoirse Ronan is spellbinding as eternal teenager Eleanor, who seems condemned to be a sad, isolated outsider forever, while Gemma Arterton plays her more earthly, busty, gutsy mother Clara, with much vim and vigour (sometimes a tad too much). After a violent incident, Clara and Eleanor are forced to leave their tower-block apartment and move to an unnamed coastal town. Posing as sisters, they meet the meek and lonely Noel, who invites them to move into the dilapidated guesthouse he owns, the ironically named Byzantium. But tensions develop between Clara, who sets up to provide for her daughter and herself as only she knows how, and Eleanor, who is tired of hiding and yearns to share her secret, even more so after befriending sick teenager Frank (Caleb Landry Jones). As mysterious black-clad men try to track mother and daughter down, the conflict between them only increases the danger of their situation.
The focus on the mother/daughter dynamic provides an original, inventive angle on the vampire myth. There is great love between the two, but they have come to the heartbreaking moment when the daughter has grown up and is pulling away from her mother. Eleanor has become critical of her mother’s choices, but Clara will still ruthlessly do anything it takes to protect her daughter, as she’s always done. Their eternally youthful appearances add a strange twist that heightens the poignancy of a familiar situation. And although Gemma Arterton is not capable of the same emotional weight and expressiveness as Saoirse Ronan, her shortcomings may actually work well to convey the clumsy love of a woman forced into motherhood at too young an age.
There is also a little feminist touch to this vampire story: Carla is up against a male-dominated society (doubly so, both the society of her time, as well as a secret brotherhood), where her class and gender put her at a disadvantage. But with tremendous energy and spirited cheekiness, she fights and claws things back from the men who have maltreated her, raising herself and her daughter to a unique – and forbidden – position.
The film alternates between modern times and flashbacks to their past, contrasting today’s burnt-out pier, seedy guest house and grey skies with lush, candle-lit interiors, stunning coastlines and dark crypts. The vampiric transformation takes place on a sinister rocky island where a waterfall turns blood red once the change has been effected. It is a stylish, atmospheric film, with gorgeous cinematography and true visual flair, although it’s not without flaws. Gemma Arterton’s performance is patchy, while Caleb Landry Jones is totally overplayed. There are some jarring tone shifts and the pace does not always feel fully controlled, with the final showdown, most notably, ending too quickly. Despite these gripes, however, Byzantium is a thoroughly enjoyable, beautifully shot vampire film with a beating heart.
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