For some Byzantium might be a vampire film too far. After the brooding of Twilight and all the overwrought teenage angst that came with it, do we need more bloodsuckers vamping up our screens? But Byzantium offers something new, something fresh and yet harks back to what makes vampires fascinating, darkly seductive and horrifyingly dangerous.
The story follows vampires Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) as they find themselves on the run from a mysterious group of men led by Darvell (Sam Riley). Escaping to a quiet seaside town, Clara convinces local guesthouse owner Noel (Daniel Mays) to let them seek refuge with him. While there, Eleanor meets local boy Frank (Caleb Landry Jones) and begins to tell the story of how Clara’s relationship with the dastardly Ruthven (Johnny Lee Miller) almost two centuries ago led them down a dark and dangerous path.
Byzantium director Neil Jordan is no stranger to creatures of the night with Interview With The Vampire under his belt, but more importantly is allowed to embrace a dark, fairy tale sensibly he has not displayed on screen since The Company Of Wolves. Byzantium is a wonderfully gothic story, one focused on eternal love from the point of view of companionship rather than carnal lust. Clara is a particularly dangerous creature not because of her desire for power over people but her fierce resolution to protect her and Eleanor’s way of life. For, while they have strength, speed and youth everlasting, these creatures live in fear and lead a fragile existence.
Adapting her own play, writer Moira Buffini conjures believable characters and thought provoking themes. The concept of decay around beauty, as one character so eloquently puts it “A pearl stays pure forever while the oyster’s flesh rots around it”, seeps into everything the film has to offer. Jordan’s visuals find a perfect balance between grime and glamour. The crumbling seaside town juxtaposed with the vibrant neon lights leaves images burned into the retina. Add to this the period set story line and Byzantium has a visual quality so powerful you want to reach out and touch it. An image of Clara bathing in a waterfall of blood perfectly captures the finely judged balance between gore and beauty which effortlessly sums up the attraction vampires have long since possessed in cinema.
Within this idea of pure versus decay are the two lead characters. Arterton’s Clara is violent, angry but with a maternal instinct to that of a lioness. Her performance here is among her best work, at one point chilling and dangerous before turning warm and comforting. Ronan’s Eleanor meanwhile is delicate, ashen-faced with piercing blue eyes that stare through the soul giving off an ethereal quality. It is to both these young actresses credit that the film’s power comes from their often-opposing forceful ways.
Byzantium is a film so deeply seductive in style and story that it picks you up, cradles you before sinking its teeth into your very soul. Suffice to say on this basis there’s still life in the undead.