Byzantium Review

Director: Neil Jordan
Writer: Moira Buffini
Starring: Gemma Arterton, Saoirse Ronan, Jonny Lee Miller
Running Time: 118 Minutes
Year: 2012
This review appears courtesy of Derby QUAD Blog

Director Neil Jordan is no stranger to the blood sucking ways of the vampire. Adapting Ann Rice’s Interview With The Vampire back in 1994, he brought the luscious blood splatter of the fang-toothed ones to life and wrung out a winning turn from a young Kirsten Dunst. Byzantium’s world isn’t a million miles away from the domain in which Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt skulked.

Set in a small coastal town in England during winter, the fairground attractions and dilapidated pier chime the bleak situation of our heroines. Mother and daughter double act, Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) are two nomads, drifting from place to place in an attempt to keep a low profile. Owing heavily to British dramas of the past, it leans on the wintry climate to paint a “real” portrait of the tribulations the neverdead must endure. How does a vampire pay rent? How do they fulfil their base needs without attracting attention?

The busty grit of Arterton’s Clara steals the show. Saddled with a double life, she revels gloriously in her opposing desires for blood and familial protection. Adding a shock of vitality to what could have been a trudging affair, she soaks in the bliss of a cascading blood waterfall, one of the film’s bizarre highlights. Her sullied past revived time and time again through her lifetime, slots in beside Eleanor’s reserved solitude like Ken Loach doing genre. She is the English counterpart to Melanie Griffiths’ Working Girl: a head for business, and a bod for sin. She’s a mother, but she’s also a business woman intent on providing, who’ll stop at nothing to support  her daughter. Clara is an arse-kicking brazen woman, straddling the vulnerability of her youth and the demands of motherhood. This of course, allows for some truly repugnant violence which Arterton masters as if she’s been in the horror game for centuries. It’s not strictly a horror per say, mainly because it doesn’t prescribe to enough conventions of that mode.

byzantium gemma arterton saoirse ronan

This is more than just a vampire film, and anything remarking on its anti-Twilight nature is lazy. It’s a teenage coming of age story. Who better to tell of two centuries worth of confusion and secrets than a perpetual 16-year old? The story Eleanor desperately wishes to reveal, is unraveled through a knitted web of flashbacks, jumped into through clever moments in the present. She’s a troubled teen, forever inflicted by typical adolescent angst and her blood-sucking permanence. Ronan is at her best with Arterton, as they bicker and struggle to embrace the other’s needs. The Irish teen first made waves with The Lovely Bones, and her arc here is not entirely dissimilar. With a coveted past which must remain under lock and key, like her mother, she too leads a duplicitous existence that sadly only allows her a handful of scenes in which she’s running away from someone. Or playing a piano.

It’s worth persevering with, despite sluggishness around the halfway mark. The repeated emphasis on the mother-daughter relationship and Eleanor’s determination to forge a bond with a new friend, they’re all essential to the finale’s weighty emotional payoff.

“With vampires saturating popular culture at an infectious rate, Byzantium trades their glittering lustiness for a snapshot at the lifestyle they’re forced to navigate.”

With vampires saturating popular culture at an infectious rate, Byzantium trades their glittering lustiness for a snapshot at the lifestyle they’re forced to navigate. Based on the play by Moira Buffini, one of the film’s most potent qualities is its new addition to vampiric lore.  The shameful oppression women have suffered at the hands of men courses through the black heart of the narrative. Dodging back and forth between Clara’s pre-vampire life and her trick-turnin’ Mama, her steely nature comes undone. The unique siring process here is one I’ve never seen before on the big screen, working its way into the story via the vehicle of social commentary. Coming from Jordan this was inevitable and most welcome. The ambition and purpose of vampires rarely extends past a blood thirst. Here there is more at stake (guffaw!) with the politics of vampirism and status the driving force behind Clara and Eleanor’s pursuers. It’s engaging and frustrating to witness the circumstances behind their transformations, neither a joyous willing occasion, each reborn out of the dastardly plottings of Ruthven (Jonny Lee Miller.)

Miller’s Captain Ruthven is the revolting lynchpin appearing in the women’s lives only to reduce them to blubbering messes through his special brand of misogyny. This is not to say there’s an anti-men theme here, in fact, quite the opposite. Eleanor’s confidante, her teacher, Ruthven’s comrade Darvell, they all strive to undo the centuries of degradation served up to Clara and Eleanor.

Byzantium rocks between its bloody heels and its tentative tip toes. At its centre lies an engaging social drama dressed up as a garish morality tale for the destitute. Don’t expect a fast-paced bloody actioner and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by this unnerving, gritty drama with one of the best onscreen offings in the first twenty minutes.

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gem seddon freelance blogger freelance film journalist freelance writer

About the author

Gem is a freelance writer with 11 years of experience in entertainment journalism and movie blogging. She's written for outlets including Digital Spy, TechRadar, Vulture, Total Film, GamesRadar+, Certified Forgotten, and more.