Bloody Undead! Un-Bloody-Dead! It’s even worse than bloody cats! Undead, what’s the bloody point?!
Indeed, the undead seems to be a popular trend at the moment. We’ve got plenty of shows and movies of zombies, ghosts, and vampires to go around. Shows like The Walking Dead do plenty of justice for zombies, but vampires, however, are not doing so strong. Popular hits like Twilight (noted for “bringing back” the vampire genre) have a deserved reputation for being weak, manipulative teen fare (highlighted by a terrible role model of a lead character). However, there are smaller, better films released that remind us what made the sub-genre so fascinating in the first place, Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In being one of them. Byzantium, the latest from Interview with a Vampire director Neil Jordan, is also one such film.
The main characters are, of course, vampires. Mother Clara (Gemma Arterton) and daughter Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) have been living town to town for two centuries, and after having to leave town yet again, they wind up in a small town on the English coast, taking refuge with a man who has inherited the Byzantium hotel. As the two adjust to their new lives, Eleanor falls in love with a boy, who brings out the storyteller in her, and what seems like twisted fantasy akin to Edgar Allan Poe actually holds a dark history between Clara and Eleanor, and one that slowly threatens to catch up with them.
Stylistically, Byzantium works nicely as a throwback of classic vampire lore. It plays around and relishes in old customs, such as the dark lighting and old fashioned atmosphere of the classic Hammer movies, and the color red being a frequent visual motif throughout, while also reimagining some of the customs, such as that, rather than fangs, vampires in this world possess claws that grow and retract from their thumbnails like cats, which then allow them to drink blood from human wounds. Jordan has a firm understanding of the lore, and he has a nice handle on all the style and thematic analysis (A lot of which I won’t bore you with so to keep brevity), although the film does tend to drag, and be something of a mess. There’s a lot of buildup of the history between Clara and Eleanor, which itself is quite fascinating, but the time shifts present throughout the film can be just a tad confusing.
However, most of this movie’s strength and drama comes from the two fantastic leading performances. Whereas Eleanor is a gentle, understanding soul that only takes the lives of those who are ready to die, Clara is a more vicious, clever, sexualized figure. Abused early on in her life (mostly at the hands of a captain, played by Jonny Lee Miller), Clara kills those who prey on the weak, people who would not be missed, or those who would otherwise threaten her and Eleanor’s existence, using her looks and smarts to her advantage. Clara’s a protective, smart, layered, and violent character, and one that Gemma Arterton (Forgive the pun) clearly enjoys sinking her teeth into. Eleanor is a more restrained soul, played with grace by Saoirse Ronan, officially the best young actress working right now. It seems like there’s nothing she can’t do (except save The Host), and this is yet another strong performance of hers. Eleanor feels a frequent need to communicate her history, most of the time writing it down on paper and then discarding the pages to vent, and later, writing it all down in a detailed report, which eventually grabs the attention of her teacher, played by Tom Hollander. Initially seeming like no more than dark fantasy, Eleanor insists it to be the truth. She has a poignant conversation with a colleague of her teacher in the film, one where she talks in detail of her immortality. It’s an uneasy, and quietly frightening scene, and one that Ronan sells convincingly. It’s freakish how she just slips into this character’s skin. I might have preferred a little less narration, but Ronan is completely captivating.
And that’s Byzantium, a beautiful, flawed, and occasionally scary film held together by the strength of its two fantastic lead performances. It may not be a spectacular film, but if you’re in the mood for something slow burning and thoughtful, you may want to check it out.
**** / *****