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.
In 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.
The 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