The Irish novelist and filmmaker Neil Jordan has explored the horror-verse several times in his 30-plus year career, albeit with mixed results. On the plus side are THE COMPANY OF WOLVES (1984) and THE BUTCHER BOY (1997). On the minus side are HIGH SPIRITS (1988), IN DREAMS (1999) and, I’d argue, INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE, which despite its hefty pedigree has always seemed fatally overblown to these eyes. Thankfully 2012’s BYZANTIUM, adapted from a play by Moira Buffini, belongs in the former category.
The naïve young Eleanor and her much wilder older sister Clara reside in an Irish slum. Both, we learn early on, are vampires, having been turned 200 years earlier. They flee the slum when their reckless actions result in two incriminating corpses.
Clara and Eleanor hitchhike to a small coastal town where Clara wastes no time prostituting herself. Clara’s first “John” obligingly puts the girls up in Byzantium, an old luxury hotel owned by the guy’s late mother. Eleanor, meanwhile, meets a nice guy who she likes—perhaps even loves—though not enough to reveal that she’s a bloodsucker.
Of course none of this stops Eleanor and Clara from continuing the killing and blood drinking that defines their existence. This becomes a problem, as the girls’ previous killings are being investigated by members of a mysterious “Brotherhood,” and Eleanor is growing tired of hiding her vampirirsm from the world. She reveals the particulars of her existence in an essay she gives her boyfriend, who in turn shows it around the town.
Clara by this point has turned her whoring into a full time business, transforming Byzantium into a veritable brothel peopled by homeless women Clara has recruited to her cause. Clara also becomes enraged by Eleanor’s loose lips, and grows determined to do in Eleanor’s boyfriend. What neither protagonist realizes is that they aren’t the only vampires afoot in the area, as proven by the appearance of the aforementioned Brotherhood, who have Clara and Eleanor in their sights…
Whatever else this film may be, it’s definitely slick. Neil Jordon puts his experience as a Hollywood director-for-hire to good use here, resulting in a film whose look and scale belie the low budget. There are also moments of ethereal poetry and plenty of effectively gruesome bits (the simplest of which, a close-up of a fingernail piercing a wrist, is arguably the most effective). It’s all enhanced by a seductive visual style and strong (if unremarkable) lead performances by Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arterton.
On the downside, the narrative isn’t as coherent as it could be. The proceedings take around 15-20 minutes to fully come into focus, with the opening scenes a blur of flashy violence and an intense chase sequence—which seems odd, as the film overall is far from an action-fest. The copious flashbacks revealing the origins of the girls’ vampiric existence are a bit cheesy, being the one portion of the film in which the sparseness of the budget is evident (a shot of rivulets turning blood-red would be impressive were it not for the unconvincing CGI). In the end, however, the good things of BYZANTIUM outweigh the not-so.
Parallel Films/Number 9 Films
Director: Neil Jordon
Producers: Stephen Wooley, Alan Moloney, Elizabeth Karlsen, William D. Johnson, Sam Englebardt
Screenplay: Moira Buffini
Cinematography: Sean Bobbitt
Editing: Tony Lawson
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, Caleb Landry Jones, Barry, Cassin, David Heap, Warren Brown, Ruby Snape, Thure Lindhardt, Jenny Kavanagh, Glenn Doherty