Directed by: Neil Jordan; Runtime: 118 minutes
Neil Jordan's Byzantium emerges just as the recurrent vampire "craze" has started to lower back into its grave, where those popular franchises that capitalized on the trend have either wrapped up or are settling into a formulaic reputation out of the spotlight. Instead of clashing with conventions that everyone knows and relishes, this marks an ideal time for inventive and restrained stories to break the genre's little unspoken rules for something beyond the norm, springboarding off what's familiar for subtler, more human concepts about immortal blood-drinkers in the modern era. It's tough to imagine a more apt director for the job than Jordan, a provocative and entertaining explorer of macabre folklore. What he's assembled in Byzantium is a reservedly mesmerizing and suitably melodramatic examination of eternal life, secrets, and survival through the eyes of two undying women forced to live off human blood, where mythology and brushes with horror merely strengthen its time-sprawling tale.
Making the transition from stage to cinema by playwright/screenwriter Moira Buffini, who recently brought to life the eeriness and melancholy of Jane Eyre in an elegant adaptation, Byzantium tells the conjoined stories of two penniless vampires who have been living together and harboring their secret for over two-hundred years. Clara (Gemma Arterton, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters) serves as the maternal caregiver of the two by working various erotic/carnal jobs to pay their bills, affording her easy opportunities to feed where needed. Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan, Hanna), on the other hand, mostly keeps to piano playing and her journal -- repeatedly writing down her life story -- as she takes casual strolls and minimizes contact with others, finding "nobler" ways of taking blood. Picking up as they're forced to flee their current living situation, the story focuses on how they resourcefully land in a ramshackle English hotel, while Eleanor's need to reveal her history materializes in a concurrent telling of how they became who they are, starting in the 1800s, and why certain people are tracking them down.
Eschewing the boundaries created by other vampire stories, Byzantium deliberately turns common mythology on its head: the absence of fangs and powerlessness of holy relics are implicitly addressed, while sunlight doesn't even factor into Clara and Eleanor's everyday routine. Down to the ritualistic, deeply-personal creation of new vampires, involving a gothic display of metamorphosis amid a cascade of blood and swarming birds, Buffini's script reduces those known conventions into a direct, somber reflection on what it'd be like as an unnatural immortal human who lives off the blood of others and ponders their moral deviance. It also doesn't shy away from the intimacy of loneliness that comes with the supernatural territory, the inability to build lasting relationships and the monstrous desires that surface with simple intimacy and the sight of blood. And when Byzantium actually does brush with conventions, from puncturing veins to invitations into homes, it shrewdly folds them within the story.
The moody photography from Shame and The Place Beyond the Pines cinematographer Sean Bobbitt pursues Eleanor as she struggles to hold onto her secret in the rustic seaside town, while inadvertently (and not so inadvertently) revealing her history through flashbacks and readings of her journal. Here, Neil Jordan's experience with Interview with the Vampire comes into play, where elegiac narration and glimpses at the past -- including quietly haunting scenes of Eleanor stalking visions of her younger pre-vampire self -- craft an antiquated, melancholy portrait of hardship and seclusion surrounding the origin of the two vampires. Clara's roots as a prostitute, her relationship with an oppressive naval captain (Jonny Lee Miller, Trainspotting), and the period's troubles with fatal illnesses and abandoned children linger in a downhearted mood that never really eases up. Restrained (albeit effective) usage of gore and slow-boiling suspense don't offer many visceral delights to compensate for its deliberate meditation on life eternal, very much rendering it into a horror-drama with an emphasis on the drama.
Some might find it odd that Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan spend most of their screen time apart considering the characters' codependence, yet it makes sense due to Clara's pursuits and Eleanor's burgeoning need for distance. Their separate performances are alluring, where they pour their innate strengths into the vampire mold. Arterton brings the fire and desperation she displayed in The Disappearance of Alice Creed to the role, driven by vitality as Clara's project to turn a rundown hotel into a brothel/safe haven echoes her past experience in the world's oldest profession. Conversely, Saoirse Ronan's willowy demeanor and piercing eyes mesh well with a "righteous" vampire coping with her existence, whose virtues and inner turmoil intersect with her appetite and killing techniques. They've not grown sensual, or prideful, or even particularly knowledgeable of the world over their years, instead merely aware of the passage of time, reflected in the actresses' cunning and consistent performances.
Byzantium revolves around the mystery stirring underneath their untellable story, growing complicated as Eleanor builds a reluctant relationship with a terminally ill local college student, Frank (Caleb Landry Jones, X-Men: First Class), whose curiosity suggests he might embrace her true nature. It's something quite harrowing for a two-hundred year old teenager to keep bottled up for so long -- a part of Clara's "code" that they follow for reasons beyond simply keeping a low profile amongst mortals. Eliciting shades of Anne Rice and John Ajvide Lindqvist as it approaches its conclusion, these pieces of Eleanor's history are disclosed in muddled, bluntly poetic expressions of eternal kinship and paternal bonds, reaching an unsurprising yet fitting bittersweet catharsis involving how they obtain the gift of immortality. While Byzantium might not have much new to say about the melancholy born of forever living with one's experiences and trespasses, the unique context of Eleanor's perspective mesmerizes in this gripping vampire curio.
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Posted by Thomas Spurlin on 11/14/2013