Skip to main content

I think we’re the only ones who still endure.


Byzantium
(2012)

(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.

****

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

What ho, Brinkley. So, do you think we’re going to get along, what?

Jeeves and Wooster 2.4: Jeeves in the Country  (aka Chuffy)
The plundering of Thank You, Jeeves elicits two more of the series’ best episodes, the first of which finds Bertie retiring to the country with a new valet, the insolent, incompetent and inebriate Brinkley (a wonderfully sour, sullen performance from Fred Evans, who would receive an encore in the final season), owing to Jeeves being forced to resign over his master’s refusal to give up the trumpet (“not an instrument for a gentleman”; in the book, it’s a banjulele).

Chuffnall Hall is the setting (filmed at Wrotham Park in Hertfordshire), although the best of the action takes place around Bertie’s digs in Chuffnall Regis (Clovelly, Devon), which old pal Reginald “Chuffy” Chuffnell (Marmaduke Lord Chuffnell) has obligingly rented him, much to the grievance of the villagers, who have to endure his trumpeting disrupting the beatific beach (it’s a lovely spot, one of the most evocative in the series).

Jeeves is snapped up into the e…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

Angry man is unsecure.

Hulk (2003)
(SPOILERS) I’m not a Hulk apologist. I unreservedly consider it one of the superior superhero adaptations, admittedly more for the visual acumen Ang Lee brings to the material than James Schamus, Michael France and John Turman’s screenplay. But even then, if the movie gets bogged down in unnecessarily overwrought father-son origins and dynamic, overlaid on a perfectly good and straightforward core story (one might suggest it was change for the sake of change), once those alterations are in place, much of the follow through, and the paralleling of wayward parents and upright children, or vice versa, translates effectively to the screen, even if the realisation of the big green fella is somewhat variable.

I do… very competitive ice dancing.

Justice League (2017)
(SPOILERS) Superheroes, and superhero movies, trade in hyperbole, so it shouldn’t be surprising that DC’s two releases this year have been responded to in like, only each at opposite ends of the spectrum. Wonder Woman was insanely over-praised in the rush to fete a female superhero finally leading a movie, crushing all nuanced criticism in its wake. Justice League, meanwhile, has been lambasted on the basis that it’s more of the same as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, only worse – to the extent there have been calls for a Zach Snyder Director’s Cut, which is quite an extent, as extents go – as it’s guilty of being an unholy clash of styles, grimdark Zach scowling in one corner and quip-happy Joss pirouetting in the other. And yes, the movie is consequently a mess, but it’s a relatively painless mess, with the sense to get in and get out again before the viewer has enough time to assess the full extent of the damage.

That be what we call scringe stone, sir.

Doctor Who The Ribos Operation (1978)
Season 16 is my favourite season, so I’m inevitably of the view that it gets a bad rap (or a just plain neglected one), is underrated and generally unappreciated. Of its six stories, though, The Ribos Operation is probably the one, on balance, that receives the most accolades (on some days, it’s The Pirate Planet; many moons ago, back when DWAS was actually a thing of some relevance, The Stones of Blood won their season poll; there are also those who, rightly, extol the virtues of The Androids of Tara). I’m fully behind that, although truthfully, I don’t think there’s an awful lot between the first four stories. Why, I even have great affection for the finale. It’s only “KROLL! KROLL! KROLL! KROLL!” that comes up a bit short, which no doubt makes me a no good dryfoot, but there you are. If that Robert Holmes script is on the threadbare side, through little fault of his own, The Ribos Operation is contrastingly one of his very best, a hugely satisfyi…

Sometimes when you take people away, they don't come back.

The Ward (2010)
(SPOILERS) I’d felt no particular compunction to rush out and see The Ward (or rent it), partly down to the underwhelming reviews, but mostly because John Carpenter’s last few films had been so disappointing, and I doubted a decade away from the big screen would rejuvenate someone who’d rather play computer games than call the shots. Perhaps inevitably then, now I have finally given it a look, it’s a case of low expectations being at least surpassed. The Ward isn’t very good, but it isn’t outright bad either.

While it seems obvious in retrospect, I failed to guess the twist before it was revealed, probably because I was still expecting a supernatural element to be realised, it being a Carpenter movie. But then, this doesn’t feel very much like a Carpenter movie. It doesn’t have a Carpenter score (Mark Killian) or screenplay (Michael and Shawn Rasmussen) and it doesn’t have Gary B Kibbe as lenser (Yaron Orbach). I suspect the latter explains why it’s a much more professi…

‘Cos I’m the gringo who always delivers.

American Made (2017)
(SPOILERS) This is definitely more the sort of thing Tom Cruise should be doing, a movie that relies both on his boyish™ charm and at least has pretensions of ever so slightly pushing the envelope of standard multiplex fare, rather than desperately attaching himself to an impersonal franchise (The Mummy) or flailingly attempting to kick start one (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back); remember when Cruise wouldn’t even go near sequels (for about 20 years, The Color of Money aside, and then only the one series)? American Made is still victim to the tendency of his movies to feel superstar-fitted rather than remaining as punchy as they might be on paper (Made’s never quite as satirically sharp as it wants to be), but it at least doesn’t lead its audience by the nose.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

You diabolical mastermind, you.

The Avengers Season 4 Ranked – Worst to Best
Season Four is generally held up as the pinnacle of The Avengers, and it certainly maintains the greatest level of consistency in the run. Nevertheless, as I noted a few reviews back, one viewer’s classic is another’s ho-hum with this show, perhaps because it doesn’t elicit the same kind of exhaustive fandom to establish any level of consensus as some series. There follows my Worst to Best ranking of the season, told mostly in pictures. The index for full episode reviews can be found here.