“Eternal life will only be given to those who die”
Neil Jordan has a had a long career in filmmaking, with a cover-article in this months Sight & Sound. Prior to filmmaking, Jordan was a novellist too writing fiction including Night in Tunisia (1976) and, most recently, Mistaken (2011). Therefore considering Byzantium is based on a play – Moira Buffini’s A Vampire Story – it is no suprise that Jordan has chosen this project, proving that his latest vampire film is not another film aspiring for Twilight success, but instead a neat re-tread of similar themes of his 1994 film Interview with a Vampire. Saorsie Ronan and Gemma Arterton play the timeless vampires, set in the coastal town, and at a point whereby the everlasting life Saorsie Ronan has been given is taking its toll – will she turn into the angry, dangerous woman her Mother has become? Or will she stop herself from sinkming her teeth into the next victim and consider a different way of life?
The Real Vampire
Setting the scene, we see Eleanor (Saorsie Ronan in a calm, measured performance) tearing pages from a book, narrating the story and introducing herself from a council estate. We then see an elderly man speak to her – a man who has collected and read the torn pages – and cautiously, he invites her into his house. As an allegory of the film as a whole, we question whether Eleanor will be the victim before it is revealed that it is the elderly man, aware of his final moments of life, who is offering his blood to satisfy her thirst. Eleanor is a vampire, who is due to remain a teenager for the rest of her life – the eternal school-girl. Our assumption of her innocence swiftly changes in these opening moments – akin to the innocent Eli in Let The Right One In, a young woman whose kindness and sensitivity is marred by a dangerous thirst for blood. The two films carry much in common, but Byzantium seems to build upon a sense of history and tradition that is left ambiguously open-ended in Let The Right One In. This manages to give a sense of scale and scope that we rarely see, as Byzantium manages to jump through time and weave together a story that is set across 200 years.
Eleanor and her Mother, Clara (Gemma Arteton) are two female vampires – a rare anomoly due to the traditions of an established order that was, and remains, dominated by men. Clara uses her body to raise money for herself and Eleanor – and she kills when hungry opposed to Eleanor who feeds on the weak and the elderly who are ready to die. Hastings was a location as Jordan was keen to create an environment that had a haunted feel – a seaside town that reflects an ever-changing world through the waves eroding the past. He lingers on historical buildings that have lasted through hundreds of years; the wind blows and the sky is grey. A true sense of Britishness and naturalism that we can relate to when visiting a seaside town on a dull-day. This is not a glossy film as the fairground rides are dirty and often remain static while the buildings are decaying. The old traditions and attitudes of sexism are dying too…
A Mature Twilight
The adult themes of sexuality, prostitution and abuse push this film to a new, maturer level that many will appreciate – including fans of Twilight, who may have watched the first film at the age of 12 and are now 17 – especially as Stephanie Meyer’s series was known for a sexist and simplistic attitude towards relationships. But, as a pro-feminist film that depicts the stripper/prostitute central character with revealing attire, it seems to contradict itself – especially when the hyper-sexual content will surely attract a male audience with only one thought on their mind.
Gemma Arteton, as the strong and powerful Clara, carries the role with confidence. A victim, but a dangerous threat, could be turned into a clear-cut villain, but this unease is well-place and continues until the end. Johnny Lee Miller seems to be channelling his scarred Ruthven on his role of ‘the monster’ in Danny Boyle’s production of Frankenstein – albeit without the innocence, while Sam Riley’s Darvell is the Vampire chasing after Clara and Eleanor – his cherubian looks seem to offset his unclear motives. The stand-out role was Caleb Landry-Jones as Frank, Eleanor’s love interest. His greasy hair and confused expressions seem to clearly communicate the lack of confidence of the teenager – a contrast heightened by Eleanor who, born in 1804, is 200 years old and knows herself better than most humans do.
A Dark Truth
It is the darkness and grim truth that simmers beneath the surface of this Vampire Drama. Themes of protection of the weak – and hunting the powerful. The power and abuse of men through to the empowerment of women by illegal methods. As with many vampire stories and supernatural narratives set within a naturalistic context, we are very-much aware of the lonliness and depression that envelopes our lead characters. Eternal life is a difficult cross to bear – but lonliness is something we all experience. Through the loss of a loved one or a recent break-up – these are elements we cannot control and yet we survive nevertheless. Neil Jordan portrays a haunted and lonely world, whereby the monotany of life is eternal for Clara and Eleanor, and as viewers we can appreciate the many themes weaved throughout the story as Byzantium remains much more than a scary movie.
Originally written/published for Flickering Myth on 30th May 2013