Review: Byzantium / Cert: 15 / Director: Neil Jordan / Screenplay: Moira Buffini / Starring: Gemma Arterton, Saoirse Ronan, Jonny Lee Miller, Sam Riley, Caleb Landry-Jones / Release Date: September 23rd
Almost two decades after Interview with the Vampire, Neil Jordan made his return to the vampire mythos with this year’s Byzantium. While he’s been away, the genre has had something of a renaissance, largely down to a certain saga – but this is no Twilight.
Byzantium follows Clara (Arterton) and Eleanor (Ronan), a mother/daughter vampire team who flee the city to a British seaside town – and it’s not all sunny at the seaside. This is a grim, unglamourous tale. The two stay in a run-down hotel, which Clara soon opens for business as a brothel. Eleanor is unhappy with this destitute life, which is complicated when she meets Frank (Landry Jones). But trouble is on its way in the form of Darvell (Riley), a fellow vampire seeking vengeance on Clara.
It’s a feminist take on the vampire story, following Clara and Eleanor’s struggle to live in a male-dominated world, and not much ever changes for them – the cruel treatment of the two throughout their long lives is highlighted, from Miller’s nasty nineteenth-century captain to the abusive men of the present day. With a complex, original take on existing tropes, it’s exactly the kind of story you’d hope for from Jordan, and his stylish direction renders it bleakly beautiful, the ugly concrete promenades of the decaying town reinforcing the helplessness of the pair’s situation. If you’ve ever been to Blackpool, you know what I mean.
A story like this, however, needs good performances to carry its complex characters, and this is where the cracks start to show. Arterton’s accent swings wildly and inexplicably between cockney and RP, seriously distracting from the tone of the film. Luckily, Ronan is considerably better; she perfectly captures the sadness of an ancient being trapped in a young body. Landry Jones’ performance as Frank is, well, weird. It’s unclear whether the character is meant to be awkward or it’s awful acting. Nevertheless, Ronan is strong enough to carry the relationship between Eleanor and Frank as the real emotional core of the film, convincingly leaving Eleanor a changed vampire.
The other strand of the plot doesn’t quite match up. It’s not that Riley’s performance as Darvell is problematic, but that the character is poorly written; he’s a generic, undefined villain, leaving the conflict boring, and the ending it comes to is unsatisfying.
Despite the flaws, there’s a lot to admire in Byzantium. It’s more for fans of Let the Right One In than Twilight; though lacking the chill of the iconic Swedish film, it’s the dark, character-driven, social commentary-ridden type of vampire tale. While it doesn’t hit all the marks, it’s definitely worth a shot.
Nothing too remarkable on the extras front: a trailer, your usual interviews (Jordan, Arterton, Ronan, Riley, and producer Stephen Woolley), plus a recording of a Glasgow Frightfest Q&A with the same people.