“Byzantium” is a very different sort of vampire drama for director Neil Jordan, whose undead were so fabulously rich and fashion-forward in “Interview with the Vampire” so many years ago.
This vision of the immortal has more of an Irish fable quality, complete with swirling mists, choppy seas and the grit of hard lives.
The movie’s stars are haunting as well. Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan portray mother and daughter vampires on the run, bound and torn in ways that mothers and daughters always are.
From the lyrical and deeply sad journal entries of 16-year-old Eleanor (Ronan) to the tricks turned by Clara (Arterton) to keep money in their pockets, there is real suffering in their existence both before and after that dark gift. As one expects from a species that survives on the blood of others, there is a good deal of gore, from waterfalls that run blood-red every time a new vampire is made to the necks that are pierced when they feed.
But there is real humanity in “Byzantium” too. Screenwriter Moira Buffini brings a worldly authenticity to the characters in a way that those most famous of movie vampires, “Twilight’s” charmed Bella and Edward, never did. In tone, “Byzantium” is closer to the darkness of Buffini’s script for director Cary Fukunaga’s edgy 2011 “Jane Eyre” than the lighter irony of Stephen Frears’ “Tamara Drewe” in 2010, which also starred Arterton.
As the film opens, Eleanor seems like any other angst-filled teenage romantic, putting her secrets and lies in a journal, then tearing the pages out and tossing them to the wind. That soon changes when an old man picks up a page and begins reading. The conversation with Eleanor that follows sets out the rules these particular vampires follow as well as the meditative sensibilities of the film.
In addition to the complications of daily life, Clara and Eleanor are being hunted by older vampires determined to stamp out all female immortals. That chase quickly moves the action from a city to a far more photogenic seaside town. They soon set up camp in a failed but elegant old hotel. Its name, Byzantium, is spelled out in neon, and Noel (Daniel Mays), its owner, is a decent bloke. Both provide a rare bit of light in their darkness.
Since immortality is a central conceit, the conflicts Clara and Eleanor face are from the distant past and the present. Though we learn through flashbacks that Eleanor and her mum have been around a few centuries, the teenager is only now amid a coming-of-age crisis. It’s because she meets a boy.
Frank, played by an excellent Caleb Landry Jones, is moody and dying, exactly Eleanor’s type. Though she resists, she is drawn to him. A creative writing class seals the deal. The questions for vampires and filmmakers alike is how to grapple with conflicting love and loyalty issues, and this is where the film spends its time.
Like most of Jordan’s work, “Byzantium” is saturated with mood and beautifully shot. Sean Bobbitt, who handles the cinematography, is building quite a résumé for shooting dark evocatively — 2011’s “Shame,” 2012’s “The Place Beyond the Pines” and this year’s “12 Years a Slave.”
For the director, who has been busy writing and directing the intrigues of Jeremy Irons and “The Borgias” on TV, “Byzantium” is an unexpected choice for his return to film. Though the movie has little of the intellectual heft of “Michael Collins” or “The Crying Game,” the filmmaker, always so good with damaged lives, brings more emotional depth than we normally get in vampire films.
For Ronan, the film comes at an especially good time.
After several so-so roles — most recently the Stephenie Meyer post-“Twilight” sci-fi fiasco “The Host” this year — “Byzantium” is a reminder of how good the 19-year-old can be with the right part. Eleanor is an enigma that you want to watch unravel, and Ronan does so with great subtlety — sometimes with nothing more than the slow blink of her eyes, the turn of her head.
As with Eleanor, “Byzantium’s” appeal is not so much its bite, which could use some refining, but the emotional journey its undead take. In Jordan’s hands, the vampires are so very human.
H H H 1/2 I
Cast: Gemma Arterton, Saoirse Ronan, Sam Riley, Jonny Lee Miller, Daniel Mays
Director: Neil Jordan
Running time: 1:58
Rated: R; bloody violence, sexual content and language