8-14 November 2013 #680


Sophia Pande

Budgeted at a modest £8 million, Byzantium is a small, but surprisingly pleasing little film. It has its fault in that the movie is sometimes superficial in reconciling its different plot points, however, due to Neil Jordan’s exuberant direction we are swept along regardless of the various questions that inevitably arise in one’s mind.

This film is about vampires (or soucriants as they called themselves in their old-fashioned 200-year-old manner) and if you know your pop film history you will remember that Jordan is somewhat an adept at vampire films having directed the unforgettable Interview with the Vampire in 1994. Whether you liked the film or not, it was undeniably a cultural phenomenon and an early precursor to the now ubiquitous vampire phenomenon that has pervaded television, cinema, and of course fiction.

Byzantium, therefore, is worth seeing because it is a rather grimmer take on vampire lore. Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) are a mother and daughter team, trapped forever in their 20 something and 16-year-old bodies respectively. Moving from town to town with Clara supporting them by prostituting herself, the two are clearly on the run from something wicked as they struggle to sustain themselves in a world where women are constantly victimised - especially when they find themselves powerless and penniless on the streets.

Ending up in a seaside English town, Clara befriends a susceptible but kind-hearted man called Noel (Daniel Mays) who has just inherited the Byzantium Hotel, an old, dilapidated but still charming place that Clara converts into a brothel. Disgusted with her loving, but practical and slightly crass mother, Eleanor drifts around town befriending a strange young man called Frank (Caleb Landry Jones) in the process.

Over the course of their stay in this small town, we begin to learn the story of how Clara and Eleanor came to become vampires through Eleanor’s writings. It is perhaps their gothic backstory that is the most compelling aspect of this film – along with Ronan’s nuanced and quite heart-wrenching performance as an old soul trapped in a perpetually too young body.

If you have read any vampire related fiction you will be familiar with the usual existential angst that most thoughtful vampires face – that of having to live an immortal life. Most of the drama in these stories centres around finding that compatible partner with whom to spend it with. Witness the success of the Twilight books and films that avidly manipulate this somehow eternally engaging plot line.

Byzantium offers a rather more toned down, but much more lovely story between Eleanor and Frank with a secondary and slightly morbid, but also quite pleasing bonus happy ending for Clara.

As I mentioned earlier, Byzantium does have its faults, but if you can look past the slightly choppy storytelling and Arterton’s sometimes grating performance, you will find yourself settling into a perfectly acceptable escapist fantasy with hints of real gravitas in the form of the phenomenal Saoirse Ronan.

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