Forget the teen angst of the Twilight saga’s emasculated sparkle fairies or the curiously sexless (despite being clad in sprayed-on rubber!) werewolf-battling Matrix-rejects of the Underworld series – vampire tales are all about sex! And not the wholesome “true love waits” sex of Stephanie Meyer. No, we’re talking about nasty, animal hungers, of lust and desire, obsession and death, the illicit appetites that reek of corruption and twisted sexuality. A dark, erotic, feminist twist on his homoerotic 1994 Interview With The Vampire, Neil Jordan’s Byzantium is a sensual, adult fairytale that nods to the gender politics of Angela Carter (who also inspired Jordan’s best film, The Company Of Wolves) while framing the eternal battle of the sexes in a wintry, seaside-set vampire movie.
16-going-on-200, Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) is stuck forever as a teenager, endlessly trying to come to terms with her immortality by repeatedly writing, then destroying, the story of her life, the pages of which she throws to the winds. Soulful and lonely, she feeds only on the elderly who are ready to die and grant her permission to kill them. Masquerading as her older sister, her mother Clara (Gemma Arterton) is her only companion, a stripper/prostitute-cum-avenging angel who kills and feeds on the violent, abusive men she encounters. Living secretly in the shadows, constantly moving, constantly on the run, the pair are hunted by a dark brotherhood of male vampires who are determined to destroy them.
After Clara kills one of their number, the women are forced to flee, washing up in the dilapidated seaside town that was there home two centuries before where Clara seduces and manipulates the grieving Noel (Daniel Mays) into offering them sanctuary in his decaying boarding house, Byzantium, which the entrepreneurial Carla promptly turns into a brothel, killing the town’s pimps and offering their girls a safe working environment.
Lost in her own memories, Eleanor enters into a tentative relationship with the terminally ill Frank (Caleb Landry Jones) which may at last offer her some respite from her solitary existence. She starts to open up, sharing her past with him, arousing in the process the suspicions of creative writing teacher (Tom Hollander) who reads Eleanor’s story and believes she may be abused and possibly disturbed. And all the while, two enigmatic, black-clad men Darvell (Sam Riley) and Savella (Uri Gavriel) close in on the two women…
Melancholic and resolutely unglamorous, Byzantium is a darkly seductive, beautiful jewel of a film. With the mother/daughter relationship at its heart it owes as big a debt to Catherine Cookson as it does Anne Rice, juxtaposing Clara and Eleanor’s modern-day existence with the Napoleonic Wars-era low-born Clara’s ravishment and ruin by rakish, syphilitic, sea captain Jonny Lee Miller and her subsequent descent into prostitution which forces her to give up her illegitimate child. So far, so melodramatic. When the promise of eternal life as one of the undead is dangled before her, she seizes it, only to find herself oppressed by the same virulent misogyny and class snobbery in the exclusively male vampire society. Rebelling, she uses her sexuality as a weapon, striking back against the abusers of women, a transgression she must be punished for by the ruling vampire patriarchy. Often, the vampire is used in horror fiction as a metaphor for disease, for pestilence; the Middle Ages Europe’s terror of the Black Death, the Victorian fear of syphilis, the modern HIV/AIDS epidemic. But here it’s aggressive male sexuality, as symbolised by Jonny Lee Miller’s villainous cad malignantly raping young girls and consciously spreading the Clap, that’s the disease while Arterton’s vampire is most definitely the cure.
After a few dodgy years (let’s be honest, other than The Borgias TV show has he done anything good since 1999’s The End Of The Affair), it’s good to see Neil Jordan back on form and delivering an intelligent, complex, subtle piece of cinema that credibly grounds the vampire in the modern day, the ramshackle hotel and closed season seaside setting a scruffy echo of Harry Kümel’s 1971 classic Daughters of Darkness, while Moira Buffini’s brooding script emphasises the ordinariness and humanity of her protagonists.
The cast are terrific with Ronan delivering a delicate performance with real steel at it’s core as the eternal teen and, while Caleb Landry Jones comes across as a wan stalker and their romance is, well, anaemic, it’s fascinating watching Ronan blossom into a woman and take control of her sexuality over the course of the film without seeming to do a damn thing. While Sam Riley doesn’t have much to do other than look purposeful and ambiguous, Hollander and Mays steal practically every scene they’re in and Jonny Lee Miller makes a wonderfully repellent boo-hiss villain, the film belongs to Arterton who delivers an earthy, mischievous performance, her beautiful monster grabbing our empathy even while she’s often profoundly unlikable.
A seductive, stylish, beautiful slice of horror, Byzantium stakes it’s claim as a vampire movie with heart.