Apart from a talent with accents that could leave Cate Blanchett green with envy, young Irish actress Saoirse Ronan (Atonement, The Lovely Bones) is most memorable for her otherworldly demeanour. This is meant to be a compliment – she doesn’t always conjure up such features – but it suggests that she would be ideally cast as a non-human character. It’s a shame that she was unable to play a woodland elf in The Hobbit, as was originally planned.
Instead, she portrays a vampire named Eleanor in Byzantium, Neil Jordan’s latest addition to the sub-genre (and his first one since Interview With The Vampire, 18 years ago). She’s a good vampire, but still survives by killing people, although Eleanor chooses elderly (and willing) victims, ending their suffering and even refusing to kill someone because they are too young and “not ready”.
Meanwhile, her mother Clara (Gemma Arterton) wants to use her vampire powers for justice, but she has to get her life together first. Though she is also a ‘good’ vampire, her uncertain moral code allows her to kill good people remorselessly (even gleefully) for the ‘right’ reason. Ronan and Arterton both play their roles well, though they have little chemistry and it’s difficult to believe that they could be related.
Ronan’s characters generally seem to be old souls, being adept at portraying wisdom beyond her years. As Eleanor is over 200-years old, this is logical. Clara, however, has not matured any more than she has aged.
The film divides itself between their contemporary story – as they try to face the modern world – and the origin story. The flashbacks, which help to make Clara a more sympathetic character (and introduce Sam Riley, ostensibly as a dashing hero), soon become the best parts, with exquisite period detail and island locations.
Of course, if you like gothic vampire movies, you probably like gore. If so, a word of warning: there is precious little here. Instead, Jordan provides a pensive, intelligent vampire-angst movie.