It’s been nearly 20 years since Neil Jordan helped to define the modern vampire with his adaptation of Anne Rice’s Interview With The Vampire. From New Orleans to stony beaches, a run-down British seaside town provides the setting for his return to the vampire genre, with Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan as Clara and Eleanor, a bloodsucking mother and daughter hiding out from their vengeful elders.
Centuries ago, Clara broke the rules and the two have been on the run ever since. When they find themselves in this new town, it’s not long before Clara uses her talents to secure a place to stay in a disused boarding house called Byzantium. Meanwhile, Eleanor starts to connect with local boy Frank (Caleb Landry-Jones), who might be the perfect person to reveal her secret to.
Gorgeously shot and achingly soulful, Byzantium isn’t too far from the candlelit melancholia of Interview With The Vampire but it’s a distinctly British film. Jordan makes full use of his location’s off-season seediness; the fairground is where the local prostitutes ply their trade, the Byzantium hotel is a deserted relic, and the restaurant where Frank works is full of “stiffs” (boom tish).
The flashbacks to Clara’s origins, with Jonny Lee Miller’s violent, syphillitic whoremonger and Sam Riley’s (Control, Franklyn) apparently well-meaning but distant and ineffectual gentleman, are a nicely caustic riff on Byronic vampire tales. The transformation is all the more glorious for the grim grottiness of her previous existence.
Ronan continues to impress as the lonely 200 year-old 16 year-old desperate to share her story. While Arterton clearly enjoys playing up Clara’s flamboyance, the quiet desperation for a connection that Ronan brings to Eleanor is what drives Byzantium’s emotional connection home.
Strong support comes from Daniel Mays (Ashes To Ashes) as Byzantium’s big-hearted lonely owner, Maria Doyle Kennedy (Orphan Black) as a confused teacher, and a carefully ambiguous turn from Tom Hollander as Eleanor and Frank’s writing tutor. However, everyone (with the exception of Ronan) is outshone by Landry Jones’ (Antiviral, X-Men: First Class) wonderfully peculiar performance, channeling a young Brad Dourif as her quirky, sickly love interest.
What finally sets Moira Buffini’s script apart is the fact that is very much a story about women. It appropriates classic vampire mythology to address issues of oppressive patriarchy, abuse, and the bond between a mother and her child, while the men are distant, violent, or in need of rescue. The film both relocates the vampire tale to a fresh setting, it also provides a fresh spin on the mythology itself. Fresh, beautiful and sharp, Byzantium is a rare treat.