I had the pleasure of attending a Toronto International Film Festival showing of Irish director Neil Jordan’s (Interview with the
Vampire, The Crying Game) latest foray into unconventional intimate relationships, Byzantium.
Byzantium details the story of two vampires on-the-run and their dark secret. It flits back and forth between the present day and Regency-era England. Eleanor Webb (played beautifully by Ireland’s Saoirse Ronan, (Atonement, and Peter Jackson’s Lovely Bones) has a terrible secret she has wanted to tell for close to 200 years – a story she writes and writes and then tosses into the wind; the story of her life.
Clara strips, turns tricks and runs a brothel to make ends meet for the pair while Eleanor befriends a kindhearted waiter named Frank (Caleb Landry Jones, The Last Exorcism, X-Men: First Class) while wandering around the city. She initially rebuffs Frank but they soon become close in spite of Eleanor’s odd behaviour. All the while, two shadowy men pursue the women through the trail of devastation the leave behind at each place they stay.
The movie is not fast paced, it has a rather lethargic feel to it, which is magnified by Eleanor’s quiet, reserved demeanor. However, this does not mean it is boring – far from it. The film has a steady build to more dramatic events and shows a fresh, new telling of the usual tired vampire movies that have been spit out by big Hollywood productions. Neil Jordan has delved into the vampire genre before with his mainstream hit, Interview with the Vampire in 1994. Byzantium gives a nod to its predecessor with the same back and forth, present day to early nineteenth century imagery to tell the story and Eleanor as a “Louis” like character with Clara as a cavalier “Lestat” persona.
Gemma Arterton (Clash of the Titans, Quantum Solace) gives a fantastic performance as brash and impetuous Clara. Her difficult character initially rubs you the wrong way but Jordan manages to show Clara’s true nature and love for Eleanor underneath the harsh facade. You end up sympathising with her predicament and why her life got to this state.
Saoirse Ronan’s performance was fantastic. Her sadness and wisdom shine in every scene. Even with her angelic looks she is believable as a girl who is much older than 16. Interestingly, she wears a red hooded jacket throughout the film which calls to mind “Red Riding Hood”. I wonder if that was done on purpose to symbolise a lost girl who is being pursued? It gave her a fairy tale appearance during the modern day scenes.
Caleb Landry Jones, a native Texan, does a great job at his accent and is enchanting to watch onscreen as Frank. He desperately wants to help and understand Eleanor, remaining true to her at all costs. Their relationship is sweet but not syrupy, and has an endearing nature to it.
Clara and Eleanor’s secret is revealed in bits and pieces throughout the film in flashbacks featuring Darvell (played by Sam Riley,
Brighton Rock, Control) and the horrid Riven (played by Trainspotting’s Sick Boy, Jonny Lee Miller). There are also strong
supporting performances given by Tom Hollander who plays Eleanor and Frank’s writing teacher and Maria Doyle Kennedy
(Catharine of Aragorn in The Tudors) who plays Eleanor’s school counselor.
The story deviates from the standard corpus everyone is familiar with from prior vampire movies. This makes it interesting to watch because you are constantly wondering why Eleanor and Clara are able to do things outside the “vampire norm”. The flash and over the top scenes normally prevalent in this genre are gone. They’ve been replaced with strong dialogue and true story telling. This is a quiet hit and it was a delight to see a new take on the vampire story.