The Irish director Neil Jordan is probably best known for “The Crying Game” and “Interview with the Vampire,” both released two decades ago, but he has continued to make interesting movies since then — see: “Breakfast on Pluto,” “The Brave One,” “The Good Thief” — and he often revisits those early themes of violence and unusual sexual relationships. His latest, the darkly compelling “Byzantium,” has all of that plus another blast from Jordan’s past: vampires! Some of the scenes with them could even be described as interviews!
The script was adapted by Moira Buffini from her own play, prosaically called “A Vampire Story.” That title, simple though it may be, actually cuts pretty close to the meat of the matter, as our bloodsucking protagonist’s fondest wish is to be able to share her story with someone. Her name is Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), and she has been a teenage vampire for 200 years, living near the gloomy English coast with her guardian, Clara (Gemma Arterton), who was only a few years older than Eleanor when she got turned. As far as Eleanor knows, she and Clara are the only vampires in existence. For obvious reasons, their status must be kept secret. It’s nice to have a companion, but it’s torturous to have only ONE companion, to never be able to confide in anyone else.
Clara supports them both by working as a freelance prostitute, a fact that grows even sadder when we learn, through flashbacks, that it’s also what she was forced to do before she became a vampire. It’s all she’s ever known. She serves as Eleanor’s protector, yet it’s Eleanor who is more introspective and cautious. Clara messily, recklessly dispatches a victim early in the film, and the two are required to flee before they’re caught by a pair of investigators who methodically pursue them for mysterious reasons of their own.
In the seaside town that becomes their new home, Eleanor meets Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), a gangly, awkward waiter her age (well, not literally, but you know what I mean). A sweet, chaste romance develops between them, and Eleanor, struggling with her interdependency on Clara, yearns to tell the boy everything. Meanwhile, Clara has a relationship with a kind, sad man named Noel (Daniel Mays) who has inherited a defunct hotel called the Byzantium that he’s willing to let Clara and her “little sister” live in. Clara sees an opportunity to turn it into a brothel, basically, but one that’s run by someone who’s sympathetic to the working girls because she’s one herself. It’s a case of a woman who has been brutally oppressed her entire life (and then some!) trying to gain some measure of control over her situation.
Gender politics play a part in the film’s subtext (vampire stories must have subtext), with actors like Jonny Lee Miller and Sam Riley playing men who have subjugated Eleanor and Clara in different ways in the past. (The flashbacks are marvelously Gothic in both tone and subject matter.) These aren’t the sparkly, brooding vampires we’ve seen recently, nor are they fiendish, flesh-ripping monsters. The movie has little use for rules and superstitions: daylight doesn’t hurt these vamps, and they cast reflections in mirrors. Horror and gore play a part in the film — quite satisfyingly, I might add — but the focus is more on the human drama of the situation: living with a secret, being closed off from the world, and having little hope of improving your circumstances.
Jordan captures the moodiness and uncertainty of it, the ache of forbidden romance, the frustration of Eleanor’s eternal adolescence. Nor does he skimp on one of the story’s most original ideas, which pertains to the mythology surrounding how vampires are created. The film doesn’t offer the terror of some vampire stories or the swooning romance of others, but instead provides a supernaturally tinged vampire tale for grown-ups.
B (1 hr., 58 min.; )
Originally published at About.com.