Review: Neil Jordan's 'Byzantium' Starring Gemma Arterton & Saoirse Ronan

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by Kevin Jagernauth
June 26, 2013 7:03 PM
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Between "Twilight" on the big screen, and "True Blood" and "Vampire Diaries" on the cable dial, among countless other books, graphic novels and more, if you're a fan of bloodsuckers, there's likely a flavor out there for you. And with countless other projects in the pipeline (including Universal's brewing "Dracula" reboot), there are still more versions of this undead character on the way. But let's just hope they are more involving and creative than Neil Jordan's "Byzantium." The director's second bite into the genre following "Interview With The Vampire" is disappointingly bloodless (figuratively) and fangless (literally).

While we now have vampires that glow or survive on synthetic six packs of blood sold at the local corner store, there isn't much innovation to the creatures in "Byzantium." And it also seems that finding decent employment opportunities after 200 years is still an issue too. When we first meet Clara (Gemma Arterton), she's flashing her impressive wares as a stripper in a seedy club. As we learn in the film's endless flashbacks, she was forced into prostitution at a young age, and apparently over two centuries hasn't picked up any other skills. Despite her lack of upward mobility, she doesn't mind the indignity of her work as long as it provides for Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), her sixteen year old daughter.

After an incident with pimp goes wrong and she leaves him for dead, mother and daughter hightail it a seaside town where Clara winds her way into the arms of sadsack Daniel Mays, who just happens to have inherited a rundown hotel. Suddenly showing a bit of entrepreneurial spirit, Clara turns it into a brothel, leaving Eleanor to spend her days wandering around, eventually stumbling into a relationship with a waiter played by Caleb Landry Jones. She joins his creative writing class, and, spurred by an assignment to write a true story about herself and wishing to be on honest footing with this young man she's taken a shine to (who also happens to be dying of leukemia), she decides to come clean about who she really is.

In most other films, that's the kind of first act stuff that would get the ball rolling on the story, but in this unbearably long two hour film, the script from Moira Buffini (based on her play) takes quite some time to put the pieces into motion. And this is due to the largely superfluous, unecessary, and at time endless flashback sequences detailing how Clara and Eleanor came to be vampires in the first place. These sections not only stop the pace of the film dead, they leave the single most interesting story element unexplored -- it emerges that the brotherhood of vampires (who seek to use to their powers to fight injustice) is forbidden to women, with Clara being the sole female who has essentially stolen her way into eternity. This idea of a patriarchical group of bloodsuckers, and the lone woman who bucks their established tradition is truly fascinating, but it's mostly used a device to set up a third act chase sequence.

We reckoned in advance that Jordan wanted to do something quite different from 'Interview' with his second vampire movie, but the result is a film that is both visually and narratively lacking. If Clara and Eleanor weren't vampires at all, much of the movie would simply play as a standard drama about a mother and daughter trying to eke out some kind of living in a working class town. The supernatural aside, this is pretty boilerplate stuff about a daughter trying to find her independence, and a mother learning to let her go (albeit after 200 years). This is a movie about vampires, but when those elements come into play, the true dual-sided nature of these women isn't pushed as far as it could be. Instead of fangs, Clear and Eleanor have (gasp) really long thumbnails. And aside from a decapitation early on the film with an appropriately gory geyser of blood, the red stuff is mostly kept to slo-mo drips, though Jordan does seem to love repeated shots of a waterfall that turns red whenever a vampire is created.

Coupled with a shaky rulebook (it's never established why these vampires can walk around in daylight or how often they need to feed), a story that mostly spins its wheels, when not jumping back to overexplain plot elements that aren't particularly germane to the story at hand, "Byzantium" never takes off or finds forward momentum. Jordan's genre-hopping has always been fascinating, and it's what makes him such an exciting director to follow to see what he does next. But his track record is also spotty, with as many wild successes as films and efforts that didn't quite hit the mark. Though given two committed turns by a tremendously sexy and vicious Arterton and a solid-as-always Ronan, "Byzantium" often feels as gray and lifeless as the corpses in the film. [C-]

This is a slightly edited reprint of our review from the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.

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