Director Neil Jordan made one of the best vampire movies with Interview with the Vampire in 1994. Almost two decades later he returns to the undead with Byzantium. This low-key British production is different in many ways from that A-list Hollywood one, but also shares some sensibilities. They both are interested in exploring the ‘human’ side of vampires, having them be complex characters and never merely bloodsucking monsters. At the same time, they don’t water them down for a young audience, or give in to ludicrous excesses of gore, instead finding a measured, mature spot somewhere in between.
At the centre of Byzantium are Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), an apparent mother-daughter pair, despite only a very small age difference. They are forced to maintain a low-profile due to their condition, frequently moving if suspicion falls upon them. Their latest sanctuary is a run-down hotel in an English coastal town, the lonely owner of which allows Clara to turn into a brothel. The relationship between the two women remains at the forefront throughout the story, as Eleanor befriends a local boy called Frank, creating friction between the pair.
Many vampire stories adapt vampires as they wish, feeling free to ignore any aspects of their popular lore, and Byzantium is no exception. The Vampires here have no fangs, instead possessing an extending, sharp claw-like thumb nail to pierce veins. They also dispose of one of my favourite vampire characteristics, death by sunlight exposure, allowing them to wander around as normal humans. The trait they thankfully keep, is immortality.
Interview with the Vampire was one of the only vampire films that seemed interested in having immortal characters as the focus, allowing it to explore the feelings and history of someone who could far outlive a human. Byzantium also gives a sense of this. A lot of it takes place in the present, but it frequently flashes back two centuries to reveal the tragic history of the pair, as childhood abuse, rape and forced prostitution led to Clara becoming who she is now. We get a couple of touches of their lives in-between then and now, as Eleanor sees herself in memories, but mostly it remains focused on the two time periods. In doing so, it also reveals more about the mythology of vampires in the film’s world. Having two females as the leads does aid Byzantium in standing out, it also has a feminist touch in places, prior to Clara the vampires only existed as a ‘brotherhood’. It would have perhaps been improved by portraying more of their long lives at an increased pace though, it moves along quite languidly as it is.
Byzantium is a haunting and atmospheric film, beautifully shot, and does find something new and interesting to do with vampires. It contains a good deal of fascinating imagery but it is not ever remotely scary. It’s an exploration of the relationship between these two characters, and the burden placed upon it by them being vampires.