PLOT: Two women with a secret affliction take shelter from an ancient brotherhood in a small coastal town. Once there, the two are given a place to stay by a kind stranger in a run-down hotel called BYZANTIUM where they hide out and attempt to keep their dark and deadly nature hidden.
In 1994, Neil Jordan brought to life Anne Rice’s iconic creation “The Vampire Lestat” with his feature film INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE. While it lacked much of the depth that the novel offered, it was a solidly entertaining tale of vampires starring Tom Cruise as the famed Lestat and Brad Pitt as his protégé Louis. With the director’s latest feature BYZANTIUM, he harkens back to the sensually charged account of vamps feeding off blood and hiding from a dangerous entity. This time around, the focus is on two women (Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan) who are very different creations indeed. Much like Lestat and Louis from INTERVIEW however, the elder is far more dangerous than the innocent youth made immortal.
When we first meet young Eleanor (Ronan) she is writing out her own haunted history. With each page she transcribes, she tosses the waded paper into the street secretly hoping for somebody to know her clandestine life – this would be deadly for the world to know that vampires exist. The older and not necessarily wiser Clara (Arterton) however works desperately to earn money for the necessities of life by way of using her exquisitely sexual nature whether she is giving lap dances to “gentlemen” or blow jobs for cash. Yet when their identities are revealed, they are off and running once again looking for another city to disappear into. Soon Clara meets a lonely man (Daniel Mays) who owns an old hotel called Byzantium, and she begins to use it to her advantage. Eleanor also meets another lost soul, a teenage boy battling leukemia played by Caleb Landry Jones with whom she begins to fall for.
What truly sets the gothic melodrama apart from other romantically inclined supernatural films are the superb performances from both Ronan and Arterton. As Eleanor, Ronan once again proves to be a truly gifted performer who is able to capture the loss of innocence with a simple look. She is absolutely stunning here and it is nice to see her in a film that is nearly worthy of her talents. Arterton is equally impressive as she plays the hell out of this role with a menacing fervor. She is unafraid of the sexually charged yet fiercely desperate Clara who will do anything to protect their way of life – or death if you’d prefer. Within Jordan’s world the two actresses bring life and realism to their fantastical characters.
Now for all the vampire lovers out there, the script written by Moira Buffini (with a screenplay based on her play) borrows from previous vampire legends while offering a few unique odds and ends. We’ve all seen the tortured undead forced to feed on mortals countless times before so there is nothing new here. If you are familiar with the character Drusilla (portrayed by Juliet Landau) on the TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” you’ll not be surprised at how these girls attack their prey. Even the haunting eroticism of the cult classic THE HUNGER beats deep down into the veins of BYZANTIUM. Even still, there are moments that do offer a surprisingly fresh approach to the lore without sacrificing the legend of it all... Well, aside from the whole sunlight equals bad issue that this film glosses over.
It would be nearly impossible to not see comparisons to Jordan’s INTERVIEW within BYZANTINE, yet that is not necessarily a bad thing. Even still, much of the lavishly extravagant atmosphere of his 1994 hit is brought down to a grittier reality here. Both film’s go back and forth in time yet the focus on these characters in a modern age manages to create a distance between them. Jordan’s approach here is compelling and artful. He creates some intriguing images with only a few minor missteps. While a mountain seeped in rivers running red with blood sounds like it may be horrific, the effect is lost thanks to some lackluster visual effects.
Questionable effects aside, this is a welcome return for Jordan to the vampire myth. He and Buffini manage to present this story in an effective way. The score by Javier Navarrete is beautifully played throughout and connects perfectly well to this story. As well, Ronan and Arterton bring such charisma and passion to their work with impressive performances. Even the supporting players, including Mays, Jones and the well-cast Sam Riley add another layer to this darkly poetic fiction. BYZANTIUM is a smaller and more intimate companion piece to Jordan’s own cinematic supernatural lore, one that is well worth a visit for fans of the vampire mythology.