originally reviewed following premiere at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival
Blood & Gutsy Girls – ★★★
A quick prediction. No review of Byzantium, the new Neil Jordan vampire film, will be filed without reference to Stephanie Myers’ Twilight series or Jordan’s 1994 Pitt/Cruise/Banderas film Interview with the Vampire. If a reviewer somehow fails to mention either of these film, then chances are an eager sub-editor will remedy the situation and stick in a reference somewhere.
With the enduring popularity of the Twilight films, there is still a lot of money to be in vampires. Byzantium sees director Neil Jordan returning to the vampire genre for the first time in 18 years since Interview with the Vampire.
Not as easy as it looks… Hmmm…
While vampire books, TV shows and films have been captivating the YA audience in recent years, we have also been treated to some phenomenal films aimed at a more grown-up audience – Daybreakers, Chan-wook Park’s Thirst and Let the Right One in to name but three. The question is what side of the fence Jordan’s latest will land on.
Byzantium tells the story of Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), an eternally 16-year-old vampire paired up with her mother Clara (Gemma Arterton). They are on the run from a group of men, headed up by Sam Riley, who want to kill them and remove them from their “Brotherhood” – an old-style boys club. Due in part to her considerable up-front assets (ahem), Clara’s vocation in life is to be a prostitute, following this path whatever time or place she is in. Her latest enterprise gets started when she kills off a pimp and takes his girls to work in a brothel she has set up in the “Byzantium” guest-house.
While this is going on, Eleanor is busy writing and being a brooding teen (don’t you get over that after 200 years?) who eventually relents to years of pressure and shares her life story with a local boy Frank (Caleb Landry Jones, recognisable from X-Men: First Class). We cut back and forth from this present time to the early nineteenth century as Eleanor, Clara and the Brotherhood’s origins are tackled.
The story starts in grimy Dublin before moving to a gorgeously grey West Cork, kudos to D.P. Sean Bobbitt (Hunger, Everyday) for making it all look so good on what Jordan described as a “very modest budget”. Every frame here looks great, enhanced by Arterton’s wardrobe choices and the lovely Saoirse Ronan (OK to say this now as she’s 19, so it’s no longer creepy, right?).
Screen-writer Moira Buffini has shown with Tamara Drewe and Jane Eyre that she knows how to write strong female characters so it’s disappointing to see that she forgot to concentrate on putting together a decent story to fit these women into. The flashback origin scenes simply do not work and it would have been better to just have left this part up to the imagination of the audience and turned in a 90-minute film. The film moves listlessly around for the better part of an hour and a half before settling down into a cracking final act.
Despite the shortcomings, Byzantium is a mostly enjoyable film and chances are the subject-matter and top-line cast will mean this film makes considerable money in the UK and Ireland. Sad thing is you can’t shake the feeling of it being a bit of a lost opportunity to bring something new to a classic genre.
UK, Ireland / Directed By: Neil Jordan / Written By: Moira Buffini / Starring: Gemma Arterton, Saoirse Ronan, Sam Riley, Jonny Lee Miller, Daniel Mays, Caleb Landry Jones / 118mins / Drama, Fantasy / Release: 29 May 2013 (Ireland, UK), 28 June 2013 (USA)