About a year ago, during a visit to the cinema with my eight year old, a trailer for one of the interminable Twilight films came on. My eight year old asked: “What’s that Daddy?” My reply: “I’ll tell you what it’s not. It’s not a vampire film.”
Thankfully, Byzantium is a proper vampire film, and a much better one than I expected. I missed its initial run in the multiplexes and have just caught up with it at my local Arts Centre. I was very glad I did. As a director I find Neil Jordan a bit hit and miss, but in this, his second trip to the vampire well after Interview with the Vampire, he has crafted a gripping, thoughtful and satisfyingly gruesome bloodsucking pic.
Of course, I should warn more sensitive viewers upfront that this has blood and gore to spare, not to mention very strong language and some sexual content. But all of this plays well within the context of the film, which is less outright scary and more disturbing. The plot involves vampire Clara (Gemma Arterton) prostituting herself to provide for her vampire daughter Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) in a seaside town. Both are on the run from a patriarchal vampire Brotherhood that disapproves of female vampires.
Eleanor is highly conflicted about their lifestyle, and only feeds on those who give their consent. These are mostly the elderly and infirm, who allow her to perform what is in effect a kind of vampire euthanasia. By contrast Clara generally feeds on pimps and lowlifes who torment vulnerable women, but has no compunction about killing individuals who discover too much about their secrets. Details of how mother and daughter arrived at their present predicament are revealed in well employed flashbacks.
Jordan’s direction is stylish and atmospheric. His use of locations – whether seaside arcades or housing estates – drives home the aching loneliness of the protagonists in a very powerful way. He even uses everyone’s favourite Gregorian Chant Coventry Carol to beautiful and melancholy effect throughout the story.
In addition, Moira Buffini does a great job adapting her own play. Lead performances are very strong, particularly from Ronan who just seems to get better with each film she stars in. The supporting cast also includes notable turns from the likes of Sam Riley, Jonny Lee Miller, Daniel Mays and an uncredited Tom Hollander.
Ultimately the vampire subculture is used as a metaphor to explore sexual inequality and class snobbery. When Clara initially becomes a vampire, the Brotherhood disapproves of her because she is 1) female and 2) not “well-bred”. Consequently they forbid her from having children, but by this point it is already too late. Not only has Clara already given birth to a now teenage daughter, but she defies the Brotherhood by causing her to become a vampire as well. All of this comes to a head in a brutal and dramatic finale, which has more to say about gender politics than the curse of immortality at the expense of one’s soul.
All things considered, Byzantium is a very fine piece of work for horror fans. Even if you think you really don’t need another vampire film, this is well worth checking out.