‘Byzantium’ a lush, eerie, feminist vampire tale
In his varied career, Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan has shown a particular gift for weaving eerie folklore and fairy tale sensibilities in and out of so-called “real” life. So to call his new film, Byzantium, a mere “vampire movie” doesn’t begin to suggest the lush and disturbing depths and subtle textures of this provocative and atmospheric tale. Told from a refreshingly female perspective, with a time-traveling narrative and a rich subtext about storytelling and its consequences, it revitalizes the notion of what a vampire movie can be.
Byzantium was scripted by Moira Buffini (Tamara Drewe), based on her stage play “A Vampire Story.” (She claims it was inspired—very loosely—by the Victorian Gothic story, “Camille,” by Sheridan Le Fanu.) Fleeing a murder scene in a nearby town, two young women come to roost in a bleak English seaside town in the off season. Clara (Gemma Arterton) is a brash, savvy, and beautiful prostitute and lap dancer. Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) an introspective 16-year-old who was raised in a convent, calls Clara “My savior, my burden, my muse.”
While Eleanor broods over the story she is continually writing of their lives together, Clara gets to work. Down on the boardwalk, she attracts forlorn Noel (Daniel Mays), who takes the women home to the faded, empty hotel called Byzantium that was run by his recently deceased mother. The entrepreneurial Carla turns the place into a profitable brothel; Eleanor, meanwhile, is drawn to a fey, misfit local youth, Frank (Caleb Landry Jones) who seems to invite the attentions of the otherworldly.
We see right off that the women have an unholy taste for blood (but no fangs are involved; a protruding thumbnail does the trick). Carla feeds on her customers and will kill if she’s cornered, but methodical Eleanor only feeds on the elderly who are “ready”—and appreciate the gift of peace she brings them. Nor do these blood-drinkers fly, possess superhuman strength, turn to dust in the daylight, or morph into bats. All that sets them apart is their immortality.
As Eleanor writes snippets of her story for Frank, the truth of her relationship with Carla gradually unspools. In flashbacks to the Napoleonic era, we see Carla as an innocent young seaside cockle-seller ravished by a handsome naval captain (Jonny Lee Miller) and stashed in a brothel for his future use. His friend, sympathetic midshipman Darvell (Sam Riley) finds an ancient map that leads to a mountainous volcanic cave out in the middle of the ocean where the near-dead can be revitalized; swarming with bats, its towering waterfalls run red each time someone is initiated into the Brotherhood of the immortal.
Twice-turned (to prostitution, then to immortality) by interfering men, Carla turns the tables on the Old Boys’ Club of the undead, rescues and initiates Eleanor, and the two of them strike out on their own. Carla operates from her own agenda, “to punish those who prey on the weak (and) to curb the power of men.” Now, 200 years later, the conflicted Darvell and another ghoulish Brotherhood bigwig (Uri Gavriel) are catching up to them at last.
Visually, Jordan understands the inherent spookiness of an abandoned seaside resort in winter, setting scenes among garish boardwalk rides after hours, or semi-derelict boats drawn up on a wintery beach. Another evocative recurring image is a line of black-robed nuns and novices parading in single file across a white beach that often signals a narrative shift in time. And he makes wonderfully eerie use of “The Coventry Carol” (the lilting medieval Christmas song whose lyrics evoke the massacre of the innocents), with its haunting refrain, “Bye-bye lully lullay.”
The feminist element adds layering, while moments of dry comedy spark off of Eleanor’s teenage angst. (When Frank unwisely shows the story she was meant only for him to a well-meaning teacher and his wife, they think her vampire tale is metaphor, a “cry for help.”) Despite some nifty little pops of gruesome horror, the film can be slow going for awhile, but I find this forgivable as long as the film finally does get somewhere. And the payoff in Byzantium is its own reward, a weirdly romantic reshuffling of alliances and destinies “confounded by love.”
★★★ (out of four)
With Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, Sam Riley, and Jonny Lee Miller.
Written by Moira Buffini. Directed by Neil Jordan. An IFC release. Rated R. 118 minutes.