Dir: Neil Jordan, 2013
Mother/daughter vampire duo Clara and Eleanor Webb have been drifting through coastal England for over two hundred years, never finding a place they can settle. This is due to their being hunted by ‘The Pointed Nails of Justice’, a purist clan of male chauvinist bloodsuckers. Clara, desperate to provide for her daughter and Eleanor, an idealistic teenager who fantasises of a better life, come to stay at the deserted Byzantium hotel where fate drastically threatens their future together.
Byzantium is Neil Jordan’s second venture into the vampire world, the first being his successful adaptation of the Anne Rice novel Interview with the Vampire. In the same mindset as before, Jordan feels inclined to emphasise immortality as an affliction but portrays the lugubrious attraction of it nonetheless. Fair warning, this is not The Lost Girls. Though a lot of action takes place around a seaside carnival, there is none of the predatory yet sexual stalking that we saw with Schumacher’s Neverland gang. Instead, Byzantium offers more than its share of skulking, moping and prostitution-aplenty. Jordan’s concentration is on how the past affects his characters now and thusly tiring the audience with that lazy, vampire teen angst thread – Byzantium’s Saoirse Ronan/Caleb Landry Jones romance resembles a Bella/Edward gender reversal which is eager to tap into that younger target audience.
The present-day narrative trudges along until there are brief interludes which portray the origins of Clara and Eleanor’s ennoblement with vampirism. With these flashbacks, Jordan really amplifies the gothic tone of the film in an attempt to contrast the even bleaker future that his characters now live in. Special mention must be given to DP Sean Bobbitt (of Shame and The Place Beyond the Pines fame), who forces each scene to swell with depth and texture. Byzantium might be altogether too cold a film but the cinematography is just right. These exuberant scenes that include perilous boat journeys, cascades of crimson blood and a shamefully-underused Sam Riley are rich with enough classic horror tropes to serve as a superb opening to any monster movie. Unfortunately these scenes are few and far between and muddled by flashbacks within flashbacks, providing a craving for a linear format.
It’s strange to see a filmmaker as grounded as Jordan in such a state of confusion, juggling an array of themes but refusing to focus on any one of them. Moira Buffini’s script is horrendously haphazard and leaves an impression of apathy that increases as the film meanders toward its anticlimactic finale. As stated, there are some nice homages to the works of Bram Stoker and Edgar Allen Poe but the bizarre modifications to the vampire folklore and their modus operandi are detrimental to any possible emotional connection to the film. In short, there are only so many ingredients one can remove from the vampire formula before your compound changes.
Irrespective of each specific work’s tone, films of the horror genre should demonstrate the filmmaker’s ability to both have fun and gift the audience with it. Byzantium does neither and the gloomy, monotonous performance of Saoirse Ronan is only tolerable for so long. A similar effort to Oliver Parker’s recent re-telling of Dorian Gray, Byzantium joins the uninspired ranks of British gothic horror in that the tone is dark, the imagery chilling but the film never gets off the ground, resulting in a wasted effort that contains a good story but ultimately withholds it from the audience.
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆