Movie Review: “Byzantium”

byzantium

While Byzantium has the selling point of being directed by Neil Jordan of Interview With A Vampire fame, it stands on its own as a dark, exciting, absorbing film. It’s easily the best vampire movie I’ve seen since Let The Right One In. The movie is based on a play written by Moira Buffini, who not only wrote the adapted screenplay but also penned the recent, and excellent, Jane Eyre. I was delighted to read that her play, A Vampire Story, was partly inspired by the gothic novella Carmilla (review). Gemma Arterton’s character Clara even uses it as a pseudonym at one point in the film.

The fantastic Arterton and blank-faced, spooky-eyed Saoirse Ronan play vampires who were mother and daughter as humans in 19th century England – Clara, a battered, impoverished prostitute and Eleanor, the child she smuggled into an orphanage. Each gains the dubious gift of vampirism after having their lives ruined by a miserable whore-monger named Ruthven, played a bit over-the-top by the normally great Jonny Lee Miller. Their conversion breaks a rule that is not normally a part of the vampire myth but was an intriguing twist, and so modern-day England finds the two of them still on the run from immortal pursuers. The way in which a person becomes a vampire in this story is also a new invention, unless it comes from another gothic tale I’m not familiar with. Another unique touch is the fact that Eleanor doesn’t bite her victims – whom she chooses very carefully – but cuts into their skin with a thumbnail that grows supernaturally long and sharp.

byz_eleanorIn the 21st century, Clara has become a tough-talking, pragmatic stripper to pay their bills, while Eleanor wends her way through life as an introverted “old soul”, giving the elderly the gift of a peaceful death, and longing to tell her story to someone. When one of their pursuers finds Clara, in a thrilling chase scene that made me realize Arterton can do action very well, the two women go on the move again. This time they become involved with two men – hapless, kind-hearted Noel (Daniel Mays) and awkward, cancer-ridden young Frank (Caleb Landry Jones) – and their whole set-up begins to unravel.

byz_clara_darvellThe movie has the perfect moody, atmospheric lighting and it moves deftly between the current story and the flashbacks that reveal the women’s history. I really liked the fact that none of the vampires were the modern version who seem to have no self-control, flinging themselves onto someone at the first sight of blood. It’s another sign of the gothic vampire influence that these creatures are so much more subtle. There’s a scene where Eleanor speaks to a counselor, after she writes out her and Clara’s story and it is taken as an adolescent cry for help, and when the counselor goads her to prove she is a vampire, Eleanor’s face becomes so ashen and her eyes so brilliant that she is frightening without revealing a fang or moving a muscle.

My only criticisms are the almost ridiculous evilness of Ruthven, and the fact that the pacing lags in the middle of the movie; there are a few too many scenes where Eleanor wanders and mopes around the city. The rest of the story is well-paced and tense, which made it stand out more. Over all, it left me wishing for a sequel, to see what both Clara and Eleanor will do with the rest of their long lives.¬†Clara, especially, is a character that you just keep rooting for, and don’t want to leave behind.

Images courtesy of IFC Films

Simone Snaith

About Simone Snaith

Simone Snaith writes young adult and fantasy novels, and sings in the band Turning Violet. A fan of scifi, fantasy, the supernatural and most things from the '80s, she enjoys reviewing music, books and movies. You can read about her own books at simonesnaith.com.
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