Byzantium (2013)

Byzantium (2013)

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Well that didn't quite go as expected...
Well that didn’t quite go as expected…

Twitter Plot Summary: Female soucriant Clara and her daughter Eleanor (also a soucriant) hide themselves away from the rest of their kind.

Five Point Summary:

1. A world in which female vampires are the minority is not a world I want to live in.
2. People are much too trusting in quiet seaside towns.
3. Not sure what accent Caleb Landry Jones is doing, but it doesn’t make much sense given how very English his family is.
4. Staring absently into the middle distance does not make you otherworldly.
5. Isn’t anybody in the real world the least bit concerned about all of these random killings and house fires?

In this post-Twilight era it’s perhaps difficult for people to understand that vampires weren’t always sparkly. Director Neil Jordan has previous experience of the vampire movie having directed Interview With The Vampire, another decidedly non-sparkly interpretation of the mythos. Here Jordan takes a slightly different approach to vampire mythology by drawing inspiration from Caribbean folklore. The main difference compared to our western perspective on blood sucking creatures of the night is that blood is taken from victims via an extending thumbnail rather than the usual “having a nibble with their teeth” cliche. They can walk around in daylight, but have no discernible dislike of garlic nor a penchant for gloomy gothic mansions set in the middle of nowhere. Oh, and they call themselves soucriants, so it’s a little bit off the beaten path in terms of its source material.

The two central performances from Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arterton perfectly capture a mother/daughter relationship that has lingered on for decades and works despite the small age gap between them in reality. It’s interesting to see their two differing approaches to surviving over the years, Arterton’s mother Clara resorting to lap dancing and prostitution to make ends meet whilst Ronan, the daughter Eleanor, sups only on willing victims and wants to lead a quiet existence. They are contrasting opposites and not in the way you would expect – Clara is, ironically, full of life whilst Eleanor spends much of her time moping and staring wistfully into the middle distance.

In support are a male cast who are clearly secondary to Arterton and Ronan but still play an essential role. Sam Riley and Jonny Lee Miller are the key figures in their past as two naval officers who forged Clara’s life. Caleb Landry Jones, sporting a most peculiar accent, adds some frisson to Eleanor’s modern existence. Restricting the modern day part of the story to a small seaside town gives it a quaint English feeling, almost entirely at odds with our usual thoughts on what a vampire film should be, and works alongside that Caribbean influence to create a strangely unearthly tale. The more traditional style of vampire story is seem in the numerous flashbacks to Clara and Eleanor’s past before they were turned, although this has more to do with the period setting rather than any conscious desire of the characters to cling to a bygone era.

She spends most of the film like this. It's 50% creepy, 50% irritating.
She spends most of the film like this. It’s 50% creepy, 50% irritating.

Byzantium works mostly because it’s very much from the female perspective. Traditionally vampire tales focus on the male vamps, with the females limited to snarling a bit or seductively approach one of the male leads, who would either succumb to her sexually charged advances or put a stake through her heart. To say that gender equality is missing from much of vampire cinema would be an understatement. Here, the two female vampires are looked down on by their male counterparts, a “males only” club who are determined to hunt down these errant women. Clara and Eleanor represent a threat to their order simply because they are women. It doesn’t really help their cause given that Clara insists on being a lady of the night rather than doing something more productive to bring in the monies.

Jordan has an eye for scouting the odd decent location, the waterfall of blood is a particularly eye-catching moment, and the links to Byzantium, both in the name of the hotel and a couple of other points where it’s referenced by the characters, is an indication of the longevity of vampires and perhaps a reference to the inevitable downfall of all great empires sooner or later – at the hands of a woman or otherwise.

Where Byzantium fails is in not fully exploring some of its themes and by maintaining a dreamlike quality that detracts from the story’s impact. That and the vampire tendency to set fire to buildings and casually walk away as the fire fighters arrive is borderline parody territory. In any case, the best advice for this vampire tale is to just go along with it, enjoy the world in which it exists, but try not to fall asleep. Because, y’know, if you do a soucriant might give you a bit of a nibble.

Score: 3/5

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