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Non-Review Review: Byzantium

Byzantium is visually stunning and thematically fascinating, a thoughtful and well-constructed vampire tale from the director of Interview with a Vampire. Neil Jordan’s latest bloodsucking epic might lack a narrative cohesion and take a while to get going, but it’s still an interesting exploration of the genre. Jordan has a wonderful skill for composition, and his flair ensures that the story of two ageless female vampires always looks breathtaking, even if the story does take a while to get going.

Talk about running red...

Talk about running red…

The Twilight series is frequently derided and mocked. While I wouldn’t be the biggest fan of the films, I do respect that they helped pave the way for some interesting developments. For one thing, it’s nice to see genre films built around female leads. Without Bella Swan, for all her significant flaws as a lead character, we would never have been introduced to Katniss Everdeen. It also proved that there was a market for less conventional explorations of the standard movie monsters. While Jordan’s film is far better constructed than any of the Twilight films, there is a sense that Byzantium at least owes them a tip of the hat.

In many ways, Jordan’s latest film – adapted by Moira Buffini from her stage play A Vampire Story – shares a lot of the familiar themes with the ubiquitous pop culture franchise. However, Buffini’s explorations seem more nuanced and more probing than Twilight. While Edward Cullen was presented as an unambiguous hero by the narrative, with nobody serious questioning his conduct within the story, the characters inhabiting Byzantium seem much less certain.

There's going to be bloody hell to pay...

There’s going to be bloody hell to pay…

These creatures feed on humans. There’s no easily justifiable “vegetarian vampire” diet. They offer their own justifications for their choice of victims. “The world is more beautiful without you in it,” Clara whispers to one of her victims. The vampire posing as her sister claims to serve as an angel of mercy to those approaching death. There’s a sense that neither is entirely convinced that other is justified. When Clara commits a gruesome murder early on, Eleanor very clearly refuses to give her the benefit of the doubt.

When a lonely man welcomes them into his abandoned guest house, Eleanor whispers “don’t”, as if warning Clara not to indulge in her usual behaviour. Clara compromises to provide for Eleanor. She insists that it’s the only way, while Eleanor herself refuses to accept this – the film itself openly questions whether Clara’s devotion is as selfless as she presents it. Eleanor herself feeds on the elderly and the infirm, most of whom weakly offer their consent. The film is somewhat skeptical. As Clara points out to one prostitute early on, just because you want to die tonight doesn’t mean you’ll feel the same way tomorrow.

Looks like she's netted herself a catch...

Looks like she’s netted herself a catch…

Byzantium is occasionally tough to watch. It’s brutal and uncompromising in the way that a vampire film really should be. When Eleanor is unable to keep her secret any longer, those around her refuse to take her claims of vampirism at face value. Instead, they suggest, the story covers for some deeper and darker secret buried deep beneath the surface. Monster movies work as best as allegories, as vehicles for exploring things that are too horrific or too disturbing to tackle head-on, to deal with our own fears and nightmares by projecting them on to mythic creatures.

It is telling that the most monstrous character in Byzantium is not a vampire. He’s not a demon, or a ghost, or some other supernatural creation we could easily dismiss. He only cowers from the harsh light of day when his hangover eats away at him. Johnny Lee Miller offers a suitably vile creature, and one who is all the more unpleasant for the fact that he is purely flesh and blood. Between this and Dark Shadows, Miller seems to have carved out a niche playing these truly reprehensible normal men in vampire movies.

An officer and a gentle-- er, I mean just an officer...

An officer and a gentle– er, I mean just an officer…

Subtext bubbles not too far from the surface of Byzantium. One side character, discussing Eleanor’s remarkable narrative, compares it to a fusion of Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Shelley. There is something of a reverse Frankenstein about this film, as we are repeatedly assured that woman is not permitted to create”, a declaration of monumental arrogance mirroring Viktor Frankenstein’s ambition to create exclusively without woman. (It’s no small irony, then, that the vampire conversion here involves a character wandering into a cave followed by rivers of blood flowing to celebrate the rebirth.)

The modern vampire is rooted in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and the Victorian values of that story. Byzantium acknowledges some of the implicit sexist subtext in these tales, where female sexuality is inexorably linked with monsters and demons. Clara is explicitly the first female vampire, and she is hardly welcomed into the all-male “brotherhood” and “brethren” with open arms. At best, these men are passively sexist. At worst, they are openly misogynistic. “I hate this woman crying thing,” one laments before brutally snapping the neck of a female supporting character.

The harsh light of neon...

The harsh light of neon…

Familiar vampire themes play through the story. Given that vampires are creatures based entirely on blood and rooted in Victorian culture, it makes sense to suggest an element of class to their society and values. It’s been a recurring theme since we first met Count Dracula. Clara might have difficulty integrating because she is a woman, but she’s also low-born. Even Eleanor makes snipes at her accent and mannerisms. “I hate the way you talk,” she argues in one heated moment.

Rather interestingly (and perhaps quite pointedly), the story indulges in some telling Irish imagery. Stoker was an Irish writer, not that you’d really know it from Dracula. So Byzantium seems to see the genre reconnecting with its Irish roots. It is British soldiers quelling a rebellion in Ireland who discover the magical location. It’s telling that these gentlemen of fine breeding meet in the Long Library in Trinity College, one of the bastions of the Empire during the British oppression.

That would really bug me...

That would really bug me…

If Byzantium has a weakness, it’s the fact that film takes a while to get going. The story spends a lot of time establishing a rich mood and atmosphere, but that means it takes a while delve into the interesting tale of Eleanor and Clara. The flashbacks seem to occur almost randomly, and the whole film feels rather unevenly paced, opening with a fairly standard action setpiece before Jordan is allowed to establish the film’s more ethereal mood.

Jordan’s work here is stunning. Byzantium looks amazing. Favouring symbolism over literalism, the director creates a rich and vivid visual tapestry that underscores one of the film’s recurring themes. As Eleanor stumbles in the darkness, she encounters a monster. “It is the end,” the monster tells her. “The end of what?” Clara asks. “The end of time,” the thing responds. Jordan hones in on that idea of timelessness, the sense of perpetual eternity playing out.

Red lips...

Red lips…

Eleanor and Clara find themselves quite possibly returning home exactly two centuries after Clara’s journey began, and Clara begins to see the present and the past overlapping. The same space, but different times playing out. She follows her own ghost at one point, and traces Clara’s ancient walk along the beach at another. It’s all masterfully rendered, and Jordan has a knack for this sort of presentation. Even something as obvious as the water falls at the transformation site are rendered in a grotesque beauty.

The cast is fairly solid. Saoirse Ronan makes a fantastic Eleanor, playing a disconnected teenager remarkably well. Gemma Arterton struggles a bit to bring Clara to life, but connects quite well with her co-star. Johnny Lee Miller, as mentioned, is suitably vile. And while Caleb Landry Jones never quite commits to an accent (seemingly slipping into a British inflection every once in a while), he has a delightfully dysfunctional chemistry with Ronan. There’s a sense that this is probably more like what a vampire romance should look like, even if the film does opt for an overly convenient resolution to a plot thread rife with moral and philosophical issues.

Mirror, mirror...

Mirror, mirror…

Byzantium is well worth a look for anybody interested in a vampire movie with bite, or even to see quite a few of the familiar tropes rendered with impeccable skill by a director who knows the genre well. The plotting and structure of the film might be a bit haphazard, but it’s a thoughtful and strangely beautiful piece of work.

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