The vampire genre has been getting a lot of bad press lately; primarily from the form’s recently focus on gauzy romantic notions and overwhelming camp. What was once the terrifying embodiment of thirst and inhumanity and the existential cost of life eternal has now be turned into another star-crossed romantic plot point, one that seemingly serves only to let people indulge in the fantasy of taming a dangerous and broken man.
Far be it from me to claim to be an expert on feminist doctrine, or a connoisseur of vampire fiction, yet I can’t help but feel that, for any person professing a mix of either of those interests, you, Byzantium, would be a welcome reprieve. A stylish, thoughtful, and deeply felt drama revolving around the nomadic life of two exiled female vampires, you stand as a testament to the fact that even a long-languishing genre can have new life breathed into it through consummate artistry and emboldened ideas.
We meet Eleanor Webb (Saoirse Ronan) as she indulges in a ritual sacrifice of her own devising. She writes down her life story in longhand on sheets of paper, then crumples them up and casts them to the wind. This is the only way she finds peace, the only way she can live with the secret of her life for the past two hundred years. Storytelling is how we understand our own lives, yet the act of telling a story is futile if there is no one to receive it, and to hopefully understand. She knows this pain well, and is at the breaking point of being able to hold her self silent.
This through line of storytelling and its use as a tool for finding and understanding other people in our lives is one of the most potent themes in your story, and it leads Eleanor to befriend Frank (Caleb Landry Jones) a young man who is likewise ostracized from society. His point of alienation is his continuing battle with leukemia, which has left him sickly and bedridden, an object of ridicule by his peers. These two, both longing for understanding and connection, couldn’t help but find one another, and the slow forging of their relationship lends our tale its most poignant moments.
But those moments aren’t your sole moments of humanity and grace. Eleanor is under the charge of her mother, the extroverted and beguiling Clara (Gemma Arterton). Clara has spent more the one human lifetime stressing to Eleanor the need for secrecy, independence, and discretion. Their story, she says, is their own, and no one can ever know about it. Whereas Eleanor is locked away in a proverbial tower, both by her orphanage-bred stoicism and morality and by Clara’s edicts, Clara embraces her sexuality and objectively gorgeous body and acts as a prostitute, exchanging sex for money and favors.
The parallels drawn between vampirism and prostitution are subtle and detailed without ever being underlined by clunky dialogue or obvious editing. It is easy to see how a more pulpy or tongue-in-cheek film could mishandle these juxtapositions, but you, Byzantium, manage the delicate balance between text and subtext ably. Considerations of how men have historically repressed and exploited women are woven into the fabric of the story of these two women, rather than used as an ornamental coat of lacquer. This allows for a deep, foreboding historical context to everything that occurs, giving our ageless heroines a narrative truly steeped in the ages they have lived.
Of course story and theme and narrative execution are only half the battle, and while the script from Moira Buffini (adapted from her play) is marvelous, the effect of the direction from Neil Jordan cannot be overstated. The bizarre backstory of how these immortal beings came to be is told stylishly, though never so over-the-top as to deaden the very human core at the center for the story. Color and light and shadow are used to elicit tension and mood, and the stability and elegance of the camera makes sure that while the action of a scene is never boring, the drama at the heart of the scene is also clearly observed.
There is much to love in you, Byzantium. From the strong, vibrant character work to the sumptuous visuals and on to the rich myth-making, you are a film flush with virtues both aesthetic and existential. In some ways your story is so universal and so deeply rooted in the foundations of human history and emotion that the fact of our protagonists’ vampirism seems almost incidental to the plot, but for the fact that without their vampirism there would be no plot. These are not characters whose affliction or curse could be swapped out with something else. To a film in the genre, that is a high compliment indeed.
An elegant, beautiful piece of cinema clothed in both dramatic and horror elements, you are a film not to be missed.