Vampires occupy a unique place in our cultural history. Trapped between life and death, they’re often portrayed as the classical romantic character in spite of the fact that they must prey on the living – on consuming human blood – in order to survive. When they love, they love eternally, but circumstances often require them to keep from ‘blessing’ their soulmates with the gift of eternal life (or whatever comes close). Because they’re still so very close to regular folks, they’re often given stories to explore the tragedy of their existence; audiences end up caring for them more often than they fear them, and the fictional yet mortal counterparts they come in contact with often envy them as much as they try to resist their charms.
Simply put, they’re two sides of the human coin, and rarely does a vampire story convey the joy and the pathos of being one as does BYZANTIUM, the new thriller from director Neil Jordan.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
The young Eleanor Webb (played by the increasingly bankable Saoirse Ronan) continues writing her life story in a paper manuscript; and then she throws them away. The reality she lives is one she cannot truly speak about: she’s a vampire, trapped in her teenage body, sharing an existence from one hidden corner to the next with her sensuously depraved mother Clara (Gemma Arterton has never been lovelier!). However, the weight of these past two hundred years has begun to take its toll on Eleanor, and she chooses – against her mother’s wishes – to share her secret with Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), a Leukemia-stricken teen smitten with her young feminine wiles. Will the consequences prove too grave for mother and daughter?
BYZANTIUM is a consistently delight from start to finish, but it’s certainly not your average run-of-the-mill vampire story. Granted, it has teenagers and romance – even welcome hints of undying love – but it’s a far cry from the tweeny TWILIGHT flicks that have filled the multiplexes over the past few years. This is an adult tale exploring the weight of adult consequences … even when that adult happens to be a sixteen-year-old woman experiencing her two hundredth year on Earth.
Part of what elevates BYZANTIUM toward such heights is masterful script adaptation by Moira Buffini (based on her play, “A Vampire Story”). This is a world she’s gone to great lengths to create, giving this particular breed of vampire its own unique origins story (rest assured, it probably won’t be what you’re expecting) as well as a mysterious organization referred to as ‘The Brotherhood’ that works in secrecy in order to keep it all hush-hush. Buffini has crafted two believable female characters – a rarity in today’s films – in the mother/daughter team who are tied together as much by their curse as they are the secrets they keep. Arterton vacillates nicely between keeping her daughter under her control while doing all that she can (including selling herself to men seeking sexual gratification) to provide for her; by contrast, Ronan retreats into the darkness, choosing to spend much of her time alone, exploring her fears, thoughts, dreams, and wishes despite always pining for more.
What veteran director Neil Jordan does is serve up a completely fresh perspective on vampire lore. He does so having previous directed INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE, which also had a terrific method of examining these bloodsuckers against the backdrop of personal history. No doubt that’s what drew him to BYZANTIUM, I suspect, but the film never feels like its treading on familiar ground. Rather, there’s a freshness here, much of that due to the fact that these vampires are shackled with a human vulnerability – they actually ‘care’ for one another, and, thus, the tension surrounding their possible monstrous behavior feels only part horror mixed with one part salvation.
Deftly photographed and leisurely told, BYZANTIUM will not be for everyone. However, for those who succumb to its inevitable bit, this is definitely a tale worth telling.
BYZANTIUM (2012) is produced by Demarest Films, Lipsync Productions, Number 9 Films, Parallel Film Productions, WestEnd Films, and IFC Films. DVD distribution is being handled through MPI Media Group. As for the technical specifications, clearly no expense was spared in bringing this moody and atmospheric thriller to life. For those interested in special features, there are a wealth of interviews, focusing on the actors as well as the behind-the-scenes talent that were necessary to serve up this wicked and occasionally bloody story.
HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION POSSIBLE. BYZANTIUM is the rarest of horror dramas: it’s a subtle concoction that brews slowly, methodically, weaving its tapestry from the fabric of time. The performances are terrific – Arterton and Ronan continue to deliver on the early promises of their respective careers, and director Jordan works wonders from scenes other leaders would pass over cursorily.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at MPI Media Group provided me with a DVD copy of BYZANTIUM by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.