Byzantium

Posted: June 5, 2013 in Film reviews
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Directed by Neil Jordan. Starring Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arterton.

Almost twenty years after he made Interview with a Vampire, Neil Jordan returns to the realm of bloodsuckers, albeit with a very different take on the children of the night…

Clara (Arterton) and Ella (Ronan) are mother and daughter, and are nothing alike. Clara is a ruthless woman more than happy to make money from her body as a lap dancer, or via prostitution. Early on one character refers to her as ‘base’ a description which haunts her throughout. Ella is quiet, melancholic and caring.

Clara and Ella are also vampires (or sucreants as they’re sometimes referred to in the film) and have been around for 200 years. They live a drab life—when we first meet them they have a poorly furnished flat in a drab high-rise—and are constantly moving. They’re also being pursued, by hunters who’ve been tracking them for a very long time.

When Clara kills one of the hunters she deems it time to move on, and after torching the flat she and Ella hitchhike to a desolate, unnamed seaside resort (though it was filmed in Hastings) where Clara soon beguiles her way into the life (and bed) of Noel, a lonely man grieving for his lost mother who just happens to own The Byzantium, a crumbling hotel. Clara quickly recruits several prostitutes and turns the place into a brothel, much to Ella’s despair. Meanwhile Ella begins a relationship with Frank, a young man with leukaemia to whom she finally feels she can unburden her story to. But her story might reach a wider audience than she planned, and more importantly the hunters are drawing ever closer…

Some films are harder than others to review, and Byzantium definitely falls into this category. There’s a lot to like within this tale, but it also comes with a lot of flaws. Of course you could argue that sometimes the prettiest things are the ones that are less than perfect, because true perfection can be bland.

You can’t accuse Byzantium of being bland. Slow burning perhaps, particularly in the opening half hour or so, and perhaps overly melancholy (you will lose count of how many times Saoirse Ronan stares meaningfully off into the distance) but it isn’t bland. It also isn’t afraid of its roots. Despite the use of the term sucreant, and the fact neither woman has fangs—instead they have an elongated thumbnail—this isn’t a film that shies away from more familiar notions of vampires. The V word is used at least as often as sucreant, and though these vampires can go out and about in sunlight, in other ways the rules they must follow are familiar; they still need to be invited inside, though this is handled subtlety. More brazen is the scene where Clara, Ella and Noel sit around watching an old Hammer vampire film, though even here the film has more to say than you might think given the scene in question features a bunch of men surrounding a girl vampire, lying her on a table then staking her.

And at its heart this is a film about the mistreatment of women throughout the ages and their lack of power; from Clara’s abasement at the hands of Johnny Lee Miller’s vile captain, to the punters and pimps mistreating Clara and the other prostitutes, to the hunters, who seem to belong to a boys only club.

Unfortunately this notion of women being mistreated is muddied somewhat. Clara suffers terribly yes, but when you come right down to it she does so because she chooses the wrong man, and much as it could be argued she provides a better working environment for the hookers she hires, in the role of Madame she is surely perpetuating the mistreatment of women herself.

At first glance Arterton and Ronan make for a curious mother/daughter, but the closeness of their ages (Arterton is only 8 years the elder) makes perfect sense within the context of the story, as does their very different natures, and it doesn’t seem at all jarring that Clara is all cheap and wanton whilst Ella is thoughtful and demure. Both actresses give it their all, and whilst Ronan is clearly the star of the show, Arterton more than holds her own and the two share some powerful scenes.

For a horror film it’s light on actual scares, although it is undeniably creepy in places, and it’s hard to know which of the two women is the more disturbing, the lustful Clara who’ll tear your throat out soon as look at you, or the quiet angel of death that is Ella, stalking the old and the terminally ill, never fooling herself that her ‘mercy’ makes her any less of a monster, and a scene where Ella lectures a schoolteacher on the nature of immortality is downright disquieting.

There’s a patchwork nature to the film which delights and infuriates in equal measure, and the various facets don’t always tie neatly together. It’s as if Jordan wants to have his cake and eat it, to make a grim, brooding tale of lost souls whilst also making a campier period tale more suited to Hammer. And the film shares a lot of DNA with more old school vampire films, from the aforementioned Hammer film playing on the TV, to the vivid red blood periodically shed, to Clara’s heaving bosom, though Arterton is more than a mere buxom serving wench to be saved/slaughtered depending on the plot. For all its old school feel this is still a modern film.

Even in its grimmer moments, the film is gorgeously shot, from a blood soaked tissue on the floor, to waterfalls that run red, to myriad close-ups of Ronan’s haunting gaze staring into eternity, and particularly in the flashback scenes the beautifully barren island where vampires are made. Unfortunately the Hastings’ locations do get a little repetitive, but it is supposed to be a small seaside town.

The cast is very good, thought far too many of them are underused. Daniel Mays gives Noel a seedy nobility, but he’s little more than plot contrivance. He is treated better than Tom Hollander though, who is on screen for ten minutes if that. Similarly Sam Riley is very good, but again you wish we’d seen more of him.
This leaves Johnny Lee Miller, who’s something of a weak link, with his performance steering close to over theatricality at times.

Really though it’s Arterton and Ronan’s film, they are the un-beating heart of this vampire tale, and if the film doesn’t quite work, it should be lauded for great performances, gorgeous visuals, and for at least treating the subject seriously, and trying to say something meaningful.
In the end though, whilst the stake is driven hard, it just misses the heart.

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