Byzantium (2012)

Byzantium (2012) movie poster

director Neil Jordan
viewed: 03/12/2014

In this day and age, if you want to make a vampire movie and you don’t want it to be derivative, you’re best off not making a vampire movie.  Vampires have gone from the odd depths of horror to straight-up mainstream popular genre.  And the sheer numbers of vampire books, shows, movies, it’s become a more and more pedestrian affair.  Their ubiquity has led to such a watered-down and multi-modified series of permutations of the vampire legend that each little universe has come to define the “rules” of being a vampire.

Sunlight?  Mirrors? Being asked indoors? Fangs?  Sparkling in sunlight?

All this said, I guess that I was oddly cynical to queue up a vampire movie, even one by a director like Neil Jordan who I have liked quite a bit in the past, but probably held moderately low hopes for in this film that came a went rather quickly.  The film does however star both Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan, two beguiling actresses.  And I felt like I could use a less heady film for the moment.

But surprisingly, Jordan does not disappoint.  If anything, if this movie had been made during a dearth of vampire stories rather than the spate that we are in, it might well have garnered more and better attention.  I suppose it’s not unique enough to stand out from a crowded shelf on looks alone.  But it is indeed a richer, more interesting, and moving motion picture than I anticipated.

Adapted for the screen by playwright Moira Buffini from her own work, it’s the story of a mother and daughter pair of vampires who have eked out an existence for 200 years.  Though mother and daughter, they pass themselves as sisters, Arterton the elder in her early 20’s, Ronan her daughter trapped at the age of 16.  Their story unfolds as they flee to a small English seaside village, running from their past and some mysterious hunters.

Arterton’s Clara has earned their living as a prostitute (for all 200 years), and has been eternally protective of her far more innocent daughter.  But this is the time and place that everything comes out, a return to the place that it all began, the same seaside from all those years before.

And interestingly, the vampire mythos on display here are Irish-oriented, involving a cave and an unnamed power, an isolated island, birds, and blood.  Why they need to be asked in to a dwelling?  Sort of arbitrary.  They don’t have fangs.  They can’t “turn” one another.  Again, all this quibbling over the specifics of the take on the vampire concept.

But I actually did like it.  Arterton I’ve found lovely since I first set eyes on her a few years back in Clash of the Titans (2010).  Saoirse Ronan has struck me from trailers and movie posters since she came on the scene.  Really the first thing I saw her in I suppose was Hanna (2010), which was also very surprising and good.  It’s one of the natures of movies, beautiful young actresses, personas, riveting attention.  I like them both.

And for Neil Jordan, the Irish director of A Company of Wolves (1984), Mona Lisa (1986), The Crying Game (1992), Interview with the Vampire (1994), The Butcher Boy (1997) (a personal favorite), he has proven himself to me yet again that he’s got more substance than so many.  He works here with cinematographer Sean Bobbitt who has made his name working with Steve McQueen on his films, paints a lovely world here, the decaying English seaside and its rugged coast.

Really, quite a good film.

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