(SPOILERS) This is the first new Neil Jordan movie I've caught in quite a while. (Oh wait, I saw The Brave One…) He readily admits that Byzantium distills a number of ideas and themes familiar to his work. That it does so without feeling like a backwards glancing, late career retread suggests there’s a lot of life in the old dog yet. It might be Jordan’s best film since his '80s heyday.
There’s the storyteller architecture that is underpins The Company of Wolves. The ranging back and forth through personal history comes from his other blood-sucking tale, Interview with a Vampire. And then there’s the milieu (a gloomy, rainy seaside town), a reminder of Mona Lisa, which squarely sets a tone redolent of his contemporary pictures rather than horror/fantasy tinged projects.
The director is working from a script by Moira Buffini, based on her play, but it all feels thoroughly Jordan. He’s clearly conscious of the overstuffed vampire genre of recent years and, while there’s no danger of Twilightness dawning over it, certain aspects recall the acclaimed Let the Right One In. Much as I liked that film, I found Byzantium more affecting. Perhaps because the characters are lent such distinctive voices.
Jordan has more than successfully transposed the vampire tale to a real world setting, complete with an intriguingly different mythology. Staying are the immortality (of course), the drinking of blood (of course), the loss of the soul (not addressed in any meaningful way, although visualised with flair), the requirement to invite a creature of the night into one’s abode (slightly more surprising) and the need for decapitations (well you need a bit of bloody excess to remind you it’s a horror movie, don’t you?) But gone are the fangs, allergy to daylight, garlic, crucifixes, siring of additions to the undead brood. The vampire’s tool of choice is now a retractable nail; neat and precise.
More particularly, in contrast to the preponderance of the genre, the focus is on two female characters; the 16-year-old Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) and her mother Clara (Gemma's Arterton). Posing as sisters, they live a life on the move, pursued by at-first mysterious aggressors (Eleanor has remained oblivious to their intentions) and trapped in a dead-end dependency cycle for 200 years. Clara maintains the career path she was cruelly introduced to during the Napoleonic Wars, living by prostitution or, at best, lap dancing. She provides for Eleanor, but their lives are a claustrophobic trap. Clara was forced to become street smart very early on (and reminds us not a little of Cathy Tyson in Mona Lisa), while Eleanor, whom she protected during her upbringing, is enabled to live the life of mind; artistic and creative, she resents Clara’s carnal profession. The terrors of patriarchy are central to Buffini’s story. It is a man (Johnny Lee Miller’s captain) who ruins the lives of both protagonists, and it is also men (except for Sam Riley’s more progressive – as Riley wryly puts it – vamp) who would prevent them from accessing the elixir.
The precise nature of the shrine that offers this immortality is not dwelt upon, but isn’t it more interesting that way? It has clearly been around for millennia (Thure Lindhart’s Werner references the movie’s title as a period through which he was living; a particularly nasty weapon he wields is a souvenir from the Crusades). I’m a little cautious about the accessibility of this magical site, since fishermen appear to be knocking about on the shore close by (or perhaps I just missed something). What does seem intentional is the parallel between this brotherhood and masonry; an exclusive club of men with overtly misogynistic tendencies (“I hate these crying women”, says Werner disgustedly, having just ended the life of one). Clara is pursued with a vengeance because she broke their rules by inducting another woman. And she, entirely understandably, has made it her mission “To curb the power of men”. As she ends the life of a pimp on the beach, the imagery conjuring that of a torrid tryst, she comments, “The world will be more beautiful without you” but, unlike her daughter, there is no beauty in her life.
Arterton is outstanding, and you get the sense of a reluctant respect forming for her talents (in other words, the response was entirely superficial initially, not always helped by some of the roles she chose; here there’s the best of both worlds). As Clara, she makes no efforts to instill sympathy in the character. She is who she is through harsh experience, and we respect her even if we don’t necessarily like her. But part of this is down to the perspective; we see her through Eleanor’s eyes, and her failings as a mother and an empathic person are writ large; she is coarse, carnal, manipulative and crude.
It is only when she is allowed to embark on her own diverting story (a crucial part of their family history she never divulged to Eleanor) that we fully understand her. Her scene with Tom Hollander’s teacher is a tour de force, where her earthy pulchritude gives way to a much more lingering grandeur. She returned to Elanor because as an immortal she could not endure alone, but she is too late to save her daughter. If I have a slight criticism, it’s that her cutting Eleanor loose at the end doesn’t play quite right; it seems abrupt, as if Clara no longer has time for her daughter because now she has a man in her life now. It may be what Eleanor wants and needs (and is the natural parting of ways even for these unnatural creatures) but there’s a beat or two missing.
Good as Arterton is, this is Ronan’s film all the way. It is Eleanor’s wistful narration that sends us back into her and Clara's past (aside from that one scene). She does a sterling job of conveying a girl who is both 200 years old and eternally 16. One might complain that she and her mother have not grown over the centuries, but that is the whole point. There has been no room to; they have been stuck in a holding pattern. What we do see is Eleanor’s curiously touching moral philosophy. Her code for hunting her prey. The scenes where she picks and then entreats her victims according to these principles are staged in such a way as to make them almost comforting. She only goes after those whose time has come (usually the elderly) and her acts may not exactly be mercy killings, but they are mutually agreed. One might put this in the category of enchantments; we hear her referred to as an angel as she enters a ward. But her gentleness also derives from a mournful state (“Forgive me for what I must do”). She is unable to live in the moment, something her mother always makes a show of (although Clara is constantly living in the future). The past weighs on her; “I remember everything. It’s a burden”, and in her state she cannot progress. As she tells Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), “Everything outside of time is cold”.
Frank might be a little too obvious a character in conception; while his sickly nature is vital to the mother and daughter finally moving on, centring it on blood feels on-the-nose. It allows Jordan to stage some wonderfully evocative moments (time slows down for Eleanor as Frank bleeds, and she savours his crimson handkerchief, wearing the red hood we are familiar with from The Company of Wolves; but here she is the predator). Landry Jones can’t equal Ronan in terms of screen presence either, and his mumbling delivery forced me to engage the subtitles on more than one occasion. If Riley makes an effective counterweight to Arterton in their few scenes together. Landry Jones is unable to do the same over the course of many more.
It’s a nice touch that no one will believe Eleanor’s story; not the boy who she most wants to (not at first, anyway) and not Morag the teacher (Maria Doyle Kennedy) who is otherwise sympathetic. She has a fine scene with Morag where she sadly informs her that the only way to prove her story is over time; Eleanor will visit her in 20 years to do just that (as it turns out, that’s not on the cards). But you wouldn’t believe Eleanor. This is a world where vampires are part of the lore; Jordan makes a point of showing her watching a Hammer Horror (in which a woman is about to be staked). Hollander’s Kevin knows there is something different about her but he is unable to make the leap to believing until circumstances force his neck (“It’s as if Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Shelley had got together and had a very strange little child”); this inner recognition is why he is so dismissive of Frank’s blatantly invented ghost story but unnerved by Elanor’s freeform reminiscence.
And the tale she has to tell unfolds at a measured but compelling pace. It's a particular pleasure that the script doesn't succumb to the rush to provide all the answers at once; they come in their own good time. At one point Jordan even adopts a flashback within flashback, confident that we will not be put off or confused. The imagery of the blood red waterfall is a little too much (I was surprised it wasn’t added in post; it seems they used food dyes), but everything else about the transformation process is striking (are the flocking creatures bats?) The idea of confronting one’s own self is a powerful one (just ask Luke Skywalker), and Jordan has already skilfully introduced us to this idea when Eleanor first realises she is back in a familiar place; she sees herself before she became a vampire trailing obediently along the beach, and at one point her earlier self looks round seemingly aware of her other’s presence (maybe at some point vampire Eleanor will be called back to that shrine, to initially inflict death on her human form – or is that a little circular and neat?)
Of which, the conclusion is perhaps a little too symmetrical; the bumps of generational strife are ironed out such that both Eleanor and Clara have an opportunity to move on. Jordan might also have reconsidered the decision to allow two entirely different references to the title (the name of the hotel occupied by a typecast Daniel Mays being the other). Nevertheless, he has imbured Byzantium with a melancholy and lyricism that lingers in the mind; hopefully this signals a career resurgence for its director.