Typecasting someone is always a bit wrong, but when director Neil Jordan keeps retreading the same material he used previously in Interview With A Vampire but in a British and Irish setting, it’s hard to consider him anything else. Does the move to the UK and our Shamrock friends make for an interesting diversion though in Byzantium?
Trapped as a 16 year old for the last 200 years, Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan, Hanna) is sick of the constant ‘on the run’ and vampiric life she and her prostitute mother Clara (Gemma Arterton, Hansel And Gretel: Witch Hunters) lead. After escaping from a vampire illuminati from the umpteenth time, the mother/daughter duo settle at a sleepy seaside resort town where Clara dupes a hotel owner into using his facilities for her traditional business. Eleanor on the other hand meets young sickly Frank (Caleb Landry Jones, X-Men: First Class) and falls for him, whilst all the while cryptically reaching out to her school and saying she’s a vampire, brought to life via flashbacks. Hilarity ensues.
Ronan gets top billing on the cast and why not since she’s a great young actress after her award winning turns in Atonement and The Lovely Bones. As Eleanor she does a decent job in bringing a sympathetic but not interesting character to life. Ronan goes into deadpan mode for most of performance but that suits the emotionally stilted Eleanor actually. Shame that the character is too dull to really get behind.
Instead, the bulk of charisma in Byzantium is from the always welcome Ms. Arterton. She ramps it up as the mother trying to provide for her daughter by doing the only thing she knows – prostitution. Being at it for 200 years I’d like to think she’d be half decent at it by now. She’s also sympathetic but also not afraid to go to the dark side of her vampirism to get what she and her daughter need out of life. Being honest, the film is only brought to life when Arterton is on screen since the rest cast miserable or painful to watch. That’s not to say she’s best of the rest as she makes the film her own.
Jones as Frank was the right person to get in for the role as he looks like he’s ill at the very least. A bit soppy to watch and a plain jane not making him one you particularly care for. More interesting was Daniel Mays (Made in Dagenham) as emotionally broken hotel owner Noel. Leeched for all his worth by Clara he nearly comes across as a comedy character but Mays gives the character sympathy in the right spots.
Disappointing to see that Jonny Lee Miller (Elementary) was in the cast as a Potato Famine era general. I hate how he just slums his way through his performances, with his typical one note acting. At times, he even slips into his modern Sherlock Holmes routine. What’s worse he manages to find an apprentice for his poorness in Sam Riley. Now I liked Riley in Control – he gives a spellbinding performance in that – but he’s been hanging out with our Jonny too long and gives a damp squib of a shift here as Miller’s fellow solider.
It’s hard not to compare Jordan’s previous Interview with Byzantium… because it’s practically the same film. We have whiny vampires moaning about their lives constantly, bleeting on about “oh it sucks being immortal.” We have a covert, in the background vampire cult. Even Eleanor is keeping a record of the story so far that she writes and gets rid of as well as narrating to the audience. We even have the same parent/child coupling which the film is grounded but to be fair, I did like the mother/daughter twist on the relationship the small amount of time it was on screen. It strayed into Kat and Zoe Slater from Eastenders territory now and again with them arguing about what Clara has to do to put money on the table for the two to survive but enjoyable all the same.
I can’t argue against how Jordan is terrific at creating a mood and atmosphere which suits Byzantium. The grey washed coastal town which was previously a vibrant resort in it’s heyday is perfect for a vampire run brothel in a rundown hotel. The places Clara and Eleanor stay in are complete shitholes to shy away from the real time world and I loved the set for the ‘Vampire Pit’ where characters go in the film to complete their journey into the undead. There is some dodgy CGI but it’s easily forgivable due to the rest of the wonderfully gloomy atmosphere created and the film is working on a small budget.
Admittedly, Jordan’s laws of vampires aren’t really explained which bothers me massively since it’s a horrible trend of films to ignore the traditions of horror creatures. Why don’t these vampires explode in sunlight for example? Also there isn’t really any benefits to being a ‘pire apart from eternal life. There’s no reason for them to be seen as superior. Well except Clara’s sexual libido. Not entirely sure if Jordan is going for what he perceives or following the original play Byzantium is based on. I did like the idea of claws instead of fangs to draw blood making it less subtle to mistake the characters for ‘pires though.
The massive problem with Byzantium is that it succeeds in making vampires bloody boring. This is a crime. There’s not enough vampirey activities to hook onto, despite the intriguing ‘vampire pit’ island. If you totally ignore Eleanor going around and being an Angel of Death to old people, you could forgive this film for being a gritty crime drama. With the especially clumsy ending and the poor build and reveals to it, you’re left wondering, as stylish as the film is, if it was worth your time.
It’s a nice enough film to look at and chew over but at times it gets stuck in a lull and whining bitch vampires maybe Jordan’s forte but he’s already done a superior film about the subject already. As a British/Irish Interview, Byzantium is fine albeit it walks the same ground as it’s spiritual predecessor far too much. Ms. Arterton really does save it from hitting rock bottom though.