Nearly 20 years on from his Oscar-nominated Interview with the Vampire, director Neil Jordan returns with another tale exploring the mythic bloodsuckers, and with a fresh take on vampire lore to boot. Adapted from her own play, A Vampire Story, by screenwriter Moira Buffini, Byzantium follows two enigmatic young women who have holed up in the titular dilapidated guest house on the south coast.
Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) and Clara ‘s (Gemma Arterton) relationship is unclear at first. They could be sisters, they could be mother and daughter. What is immediately clear is that they’re both killers. We first meet Clara working in a seedy strip club, where a mystery man has tracked her down. Eleanor, meanwhile, is sat with an old man on the verge of death. As Clara is finally turning the tables on her pursuer and brutally dispatching him, Eleanor’s exposing her alternative to fangs – a thumbnail with sharpens come feeding time (and phallically extends at the suggestion of sex) – which she uses to kill the old man and feed on his blood.
That’s when they flee to the south coast, and are invited into the Byzantium guesthouse (of course they are) by a typically hapless Danny Mays. Eleanor joins the local school and strikes up a relationship with a sick local boy (one of the year’s most bizarrely judged performances from Caleb Landry-Jones), while Clara turns the guesthouse into a brothel to keep the money coming in. There’s an interesting feminist message hiding in there somewhere, but any themes of female empowerment and sexuality are kept well obscured by a terribly convoluted plot.
There are two stories being told at once; the one in the present day, and one which flashes back to the events that took place two centuries ago and led to our protagonists becoming vampires in the first place. It’s a complicated enough back story to weave into the narrative to begin with, and a thorough reinvention of vampirism only complicates things further. There’s a stunning visual representation of how the vampire rebirth works in this world, but that aside everything else (from arbitrarily picking which established vampire rules to adhere to, to establishing a male-only vampire society who enforce their species’ law) makes the middle act a muddle.
But Neil Jordan has an ace up his sleeve, and Saoirse Ronan is some ace indeed. She’s constantly impressing and improving with every new film, and here she gives a mesmerising, haunted performance you can’t peel your eyes away from. Arterton also acquits herself well, although it would have been nice for the two women to share a little more screen time together and better establish their relationship – another aspect hampered by the complex narrative. Jordan and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt lend the film an interesting visual style, and at least in that regard the film knows exactly what it wants to be.