Neil Jordan is back working with vampires in a non-interview context. Byzantium is a mother/daughter film with a surprising amount of thematic overlap with Pixar’s Brave, and an unsurprising lack of gore overlap with that same film.
Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan, playing Clara and Eleanor, are vampires. Kind of. Byzantium, like many steps into this genre, picks bits it likes from Bram Stoker and classical vampire myth, and ignores a lot of others. Blood drinking is present, thankfully, but sunlight is no bother. You get to be immortal, but you get turned by being taken to a weird island off the coast of a town a lot like Brighton. No fangs, but a pointy thumbnail. It’s enough of a mix-up to be familiar but interesting, a blood-soaked reinvention of the vampire genre.
The film opens with Clara working in a strip club, and being attacked by a mysterious foreigner. She escapes from him via a graphic beheading, burns her flat down, scoops up Eleanor and flees the town. This isn’t the first time this has happened. The arrive at a new place and Clara starts working immediately as a prostitute. Her first client is a guy who owns a crumbling guesthouse on the coast, called Byzantium. It’s not too difficult to manipulate him, so they move in and set up a brothel.
There are a few stories-within-stories in the film, as we learn the backstory for how everyone became immortal, and who they’re running from and generally what the hell is going on. I didn’t warm to it immediately, it seemed a bit all over the place at the start, jumping around stories without any clear indication of why I should care.
You get burned so many times by a lack of character development in horror movies, that when the main two in this started out so one-note (saucy! repressed!) my brain assumed they would be like this for the duration. Behold, then, actual believable growth.
Clara belies her image as a blood-drinking sex-bot as her reasons for running and acting like she does become clear, while Eleanor gradually opens up to a weird young guy she meets (and who looks – unfortunately for him – like a young Willem Dafoe). Everything that happens is organic and makes sense, even when characters make decisions that seem extreme, they are understandable when you know all the facts.
To bring it back to my opening paragraph, it’s refreshing as well to see a film about a complex mother/daughter relationship. It keeps a pretty tight focus on the two of them, with all the other characters spiralling out in terms of their relationship to the leads.
It’s not a scary film – it never tries to be – more a drama than a horror film really, but the presence of vampires puts it square in our genre house, and we’re thankful for it.