Neil Jordan’s return to the vampire thriller feels a bit like a yo-yo. It ranges from excellent while held in the hand to incredibly dull while close to the ground but spends a lot of time somewhere in between. To take the analogy a step further, it also contains anticipation but like a yo-yo, you know where the anticipation is going to lead. The film portrays two female vampires who land in a small, run down sea-side town, two centuries after their making. Mother Clara (Gemma Arterton) works mainly as a prostitute to make ends meet while her gloomy daughter Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) struggles to connect with her mother and is lost and lonely amongst their modern surroundings.
Byzantium is pitched somewhere between gothic thriller and family drama and doesn’t quite succeed at either. At its best it’s a poignant coming of age drama but it’s sometimes painfully slow and meanders between the modern day and early nineteen century when it might have worked better to stay in one or the other. The film is host to a wonderful performance from Saoirse Ronan which helps to elevate it above purely mundane and towards something of interest.
I like the setting for the movie and think it works well as a metaphor for the duo’s existence. The bulk of the plot takes place in an English sea-side town which has seen better days. It’s the sort of place that is stuck in time, a place with a foot in the past but no future. With its heyday long behind it, it exists as a memory of something now lost while slowly decaying, each year losing more and more of what made it what it once was. It’s a town which feels cut off from the rest of the world. The setting also adds a gloomy, washed out look to the picture which then comes alive with flashes of deep colour in the flashback sequences.
I really enjoyed the look and feel of the scenes set in the 1800s. They had a deep gothic, smoky look about them but were alive with dark but vivid colour. These sequences were also the most interesting plot wise too. How, why and when the story began was of more interest to me than how the couple were living in the modern day. That isn’t to say that the scenes set in the present weren’t without their moments because occasionally there were great scenes but I found the earlier ones much more worthy of note. They also tied everything from the modern day together. In comparison to the thriller aspects of the late Georgian scenes, the modern day scenes feature more romance. Eleanor meets a boy whom she begins to confide in and for the first time in two hundred years, she is able to open up to someone and share her experience. I was less interested in Clara’s modern day story of prostitution.
Saoirse Ronan is sublime in the role of the younger vampire. She carries a certain amount of melancholy and feels like a lost maple seed, slowly fluttering towards the ground, hoping to be carried away on the wind to be re-born. There is also compassion in her performance and a lot of loneliness. It’s surely only a matter of time before she takes the step towards major award success. I can think of at least five superb performances she’s given already and she’s still just nineteen. Gemma Arterton is solid but suffers next to Ronan who takes the majority of the limelight. She manages to be both seductive and dangerous though in an almost femme fetale type of role. She also conveys motherly love well. The supporting cast includes Sam Riley, Jonny Lee Miller, Tom Hollander and Caleb Landry Jones, all of whom are good with Hollander and especially Landy Jones standing out.
Byzantium is a film that looks fantastic. The differences between operatic gothic style and decaying beauty are striking but contrast well and the movie is shot in a simple but attractive way. The acting is great and the story has its moments but I felt like an uninterested snorkeler at times, occasionally dipping my head beneath the waves to witness beauty but finding it boring far quicker than I would have expected to.
- Much of the film was shot on location in the sea-side town of Haistings.
- Saoirse Ronan went through twelve weeks of intensive training in order to perform the beautiful but complex Beethoven Sonata.
- This is Neil Jordan's third foray into the undead following High Spirits and Interview with a Vampire.