A vampire film directed by Neil Jordan, starring British wonder girls Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan, might have been the stuff of box office dreams, but instead the Irish master’s latest has sunk virtually without trace. That’s a true pity, because over and above the film’s explicit quality, the vampire has certainly had a rough time of it in recent movie history. The desolation wrought upon its cool factor by the Twilight series certainly stands tall amongst abuses heaped upon the once-premiere horror movie ghoul, but then again the Blade and Underworld films, and standalone calamities like Van Helsing (2004), Blood: The Last Vampire (2009) and Priest (2011), were just as noxious in turning a mythological figuration long associated with subversive eroticism and fetishistic morbidity into moving targets for tacky action dross. Byzantium, by contrast, attempts to restore the vampire’s potential as a symbolic embodiment of dangerous desires, both corporeal and spiritual. Jordan’s work here reconnects the motif with a sense of primal dread and otherworldly beauty, and it stands as at least a partial corrective, a sinuously intelligent, deceptively passionate and judiciously brutal entry that proves something like a mature horror film can still exist.
Jordan has often displayed his affinity with the horror genre, with his early work The Company of Wolves (1984) providing a slice of uneven but fascinating Freudian fantasy, long before he filmed a founding text of Goth culture, Interview with the Vampire (1994), whilst some of his occasional oddities like High Spirits (1988) and In Dreams (1999) graze the field too. Following his little-seen, but sleek and affecting Ondine (2009), and previous foray into gender-bending modern myth, Breakfast on Pluto (2005), Byzantium continues Jordan’s recent attempts to tread a fine stylistic line, between sustaining the director’s early mix of peculiarly gritty, quietly challenging magic-realism, and a more polished, restrainedly commercial aesthetic: since his exceptionally underrated, blearily soulful Jean-Pierre Melville remake, The Good Thief (2002), Jordan’s films have all been compelling and rich and yet subtly inconsistent in spite of their excessively polished aesthetics, or because of them: there's a certain level of blunt force underlying the artistry of Mona Lisa (1986) and The Crying Game (1992) that makes them compulsive. Jordan’s thematic concerns remain as clear and individual as ever, nonetheless. Much like Pedro Almodovar, Jordan loves exploring the endless malleability of the seemingly stolid human identity, often depicting gender rebels and natural outsiders, except obviously where Almodovar’s oeuvre is based squarely in basic principles of camp, Jordan prefers to ground his in the protean, psychologised nature of myth. Byzantium has many aspects in common with Jordan’s greatest film, Mona Lisa, not least its woozily atmospheric fascination with the blend of decay and tawdry romanticism offered by the Brighton waterfront. It also shares with its predecessor narrative focus on a pair of mutually reliant women surviving in the demimonde, stalked by brute male overlords. Except that here the perspective has fully shifted to that of the ladies.
Arterton is Clara, first glimpsed giving roaring hot lap dances in a seedy club, whilst Ronan, playing her daughter Eleanor, roves the urban wasteland. She seems like a flower of indigent talent and emotive insight, but one whom an old man (Barry Cassin) recognises as a bringer of potentially peaceful death. Clara and Eleanor are vampires, and whilst Eleanor eventually fulfils the old man’s wish for death, and sates her own hunger with guilty eagerness, Clara has to contend with an envoy from a malicious cult that doesn’t wish her and Eleanor well at all. Clara responds with her exactingly vicious protective instinct, garrotting and beheading the envoy, and flees the flat she currently shares with Eleanor after firebombing it. Together they move on to green pastures, as on many occasions in the past. When they wash up in Brighton, Eleanor realises they’ve returned to where their peripatetic existence began, beguiled and haunted by recollections of herself as a waifish Georgian orphan. She enrols in the school that now occupies her old orphanage.
Eleanor maintains her perpetual guise as a teenage savant, whilst this time Clara gets particularly lucky when, going on the game on the waterfront, she hooks up with emotionally distraught hotelier Noel (Daniel Mays), who’s recently lost his mother and seen his poor hand in the family trade cause their hotel to close up. Clara prods Noel towards turning his cavernous inheritance into a brothel, a business model she’s familiar with but always, seemingly, with eventually tragic results. Meanwhile Eleanor encounters a sickly young man, Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), who works as a waiter in a classy restaurant. He is smitten when he encounters her tinkling sublimely skilful music on the restaurant piano. He pursues Eleanor, who’s becoming exhausted and gnawed by the guilt her lifestyle causes, even with her humane approach to it. She forms a bond with the young man, who’s gravely ill. Obeying her own desire to exorcise her past and Frank’s advice to expose her secrets to transcend them, Eleanor begins penning a tract as a school assignment that explains how she and her mother became vampires, a history bound up in the still-lingering traumas that define Clara and Eleanor’s existence, and the forces hunting them.
Jordan usually writes his own films, but here he adapts a script by Moira Buffini, based on her play ‘A Vampire Story’, a fact which makes the film’s contiguity in qualities and faults with Jordan’s recent fare all the more telling. Buffini, who previously penned the sly Thomas Hardy revision Tamara Drewe (2011), which also featured Arterton, and Cary Fukunaga’s successful take on Jane Eyre (2011), is an evident talent, but her original scripts so far tend to feel over-busy and lopsided, and Byzantium is finally hampered by a screenplay that seems about two redrafts away from greatness. Jordan’s more patient recent filmmaking works against the kind of fervent emotionalism and forceful stylisation that gave his early films their rougher, peculiarly piquant quality: his professionalism and his artistry often seem to conflict these days rather finding perfect accord. That said, whilst too many elements jostle for attention and prominence in Byzantium, Jordan’s care with his storytelling and visualisation helps stitch the film’s surplus together and keep it coherent, if often frustratingly skewed. Eleanor’s habit of working through her emotional confusion, whilst also providing convenient loose narration for backstory, is a motif that’s been worked too many times in recent movies, when the film could use a sharper, fleeter method of maintaining its back-and-forth time dialogue.
As he unveils the tale of Clara’s sad past, however, Jordan constructs a smart dialogue between the raw elegance of the period scenes, rendered as Bronte-esque vistas of pretty cockle harvesters, gallant Imperial soldiers on horseback who portend lust and ruination, and orphan girls kept in ranks that keep their morals and wills contained, and the modern world with its brighter, more garish colours, tawdrier sensual delights and scarcely more hospitable shelters for the exiled and ruined. Clara, or Clarissa as she was originally, was recognised as a rare beauty when working on the beach (played young by Caroline Johns), straight out of some pre-Raphaelite painting, by gentleman rotter Ruthven (Jonny Lee Miller) and fellow soldier Darvell (Sam Riley): Ruthven drew her into a brothel, deflowered her, and left to her fate.
The triangular affair/competition of Darvell, Ruthven, and Clara presaged her great transformation, however, as Darvell, a Byronic seeker of forbidden knowledge (and with Miller’s casting heightening the link with his own turn as that poet in a 2003 telemovie), returns as a vampire, intending to share the secret with Ruthven, but Clara instead grabs the chance to transcend her lot. She shoots and cripples Ruthven and makes her way to a secret island where “the Nameless Saint”, a wraith which takes on a visitor’s own face, grants the wish of death and rebirth in a stony shrine. The scenes on the island are particularly marvellous in their invocation of cabalistic splendour, with whirling bats and waterfalls turning bloody red as the seekers enter the shrine to encounter the Saint, who takes on their own visage. Jordan and Buffini’s conceptualism here, blending a truly rare sense of esoteric folklore with a Celtic tint with symbolic clout and transformed into vital images, treads new ground in Gothic cinema, echoing back to Michael Mann’s striking conjurations of similar motifs in The Keep (1984).
Similarly clever and potentially resonant, but far less satisfying, are the subsequent revelations of the pursuers dogging Clara and Eleanor: they’re other vampires, an exclusively male cult dedicated to using their gift for righteous ends, albeit only according to their own idea of righteousness. Darvell joined their number and is glimpsed throughout amongst the team tracking Clara to Brighton. The name of Noel's hotel gives the film its title, but also echoes into history when a deadly weapon fashioned in that ancient capital is brandished by one of the cult, intending to separate Clara's head and body with it. When, to save Eleanor’s life following a vengeful assault by Ruthven, she took her to the shrine to make her a vampire too, Clara violated their law, as women are proscribed from changing others. This element accords well with the spectacle of sexist abuse invoked by Ruthven's treatment of Clara and its inference that such things have been sadly common under the surface of a genteel traditionalist society. But it’s introduced far, far too late in the story, with intended satiric juice leaving a faintly facile taint instead, a common result when contemporary artists try to turn former subtext into present subject. If the film was more clearly centred on Clara’s perspective in the modern-day scenes, this theme might have been more persuasively handled. The cult itself could be another superlative story aspect, but it's really left as a convenient, broadly menacing deus-ex-machina to provide a climax.
Nonetheless, Jordan’s refined and fluent touch still crafts the material with a sultry substance far beyond many contemporary filmmakers, especially those dabbling in this genre. Although it constantly refers back to Mona Lisa, Byzantium, in mood and texture, feels closest to his interesting 1991 work The Miracle, in sustaining a tone of blasted, anxious longing in a seaside town, with sharp contrasts between the elemental honesty of the exteriors and warm harbours of the interiors, whilst fraught familial longings and frustrations constantly wring the characters. Arterton, who broke through playing Hardy’s victimised heroine in a BBC TV adaptation of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, knows her way around the kind of simultaneously seductive, battered but ferocious character she plays here. Clara’s been subsisting on the wayside for centuries, still to the eye a lushly sensual young woman but inwardly a fearsomely hardened and ruthless survivor who works her way with preternatural ease by now, but finds herself locked in the same patterns of behaviour with eternally unshifting priorities. This is the idea at the centre of Byzantium: whilst their lives are now greatly extended, the vampires are only forestalling and endlessly dragging out necessary changes, and caught in unhealthy cycles. Clara, although now immortal and armed with tools to make herself a conqueror of worlds, can still only do the same old thing she used to do.
And yet the film never quite brings Clara’s specific blend of bleak rage and momma-bear solicitude into truly imperative focus: it remains rather stated, turning her into both a villain and a heroine when the narrative needs it, rather than feeling like truly contiguous by-products of her inner sensibility. She’s a user and abuser of people she comes into contact with, ready to destroy anyone, including Frank, who threatens her relationship with Eleanor and their mutual secret, and a self-appointed avenger of wrongs done to women by evil men, whilst constructing a safe zone for other prostitutes in Noel’s hotel. Both of her potentially interesting relationships with the polar opposite types of gentle, pathetic Noel and ageless, dashing Darvell, are too little explored, in favour of the rather bloodless (no pun intended) relationship between Eleanor and Frank, which is dampened by Landry-Jones’s lack of charm. There's also excessive concentration on Eleanor’s anxious desire to confess her plight, replete with what are now clichéd-seeming tilts at meta-narrative commentary, contributing to the film's rather sluggish first half. The finale pays off nicely with Darvell at last living up to his white-knight potential, and yet because Byzantium takes so long to bring his character back into the drama, the reunification between Clara and Darvell and uneasily romantic pay-off feels glibber than it should after a two-century delay. Whilst Ronan might have played the same kind of closed-off young savant a few times too many, her coldly thoughtful charisma and piercing blue eyes undoubtedly provide a human avatar for the eerie, gory, yet oddly humanistic lustre that pervades the film.
Jordan pays a nod to the influence of Hammer on his horror works by including a fragment of Fisher’s Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966), felicitously including the staking of Barbara Shelley’s character in that film, one of the most exacting interrogations of the misogynistic underpinnings of the punitive moral cleansing involved in the old phallic symbol through the heart. Jordan and Buffini touch on a panoply of cultural references, particularly in a shot of Clara, riding off in search of the secret island after shooting Ruthven, that beautifully conflates romantic period melodrama with its Gothic counterpoint. Shots of the various seekers approaching the island inevitably echo Isle of the Dead (1945). Jordan admirably doesn’t shy away from bloodletting in his arty horror movie, particularly Clara’s savagely unrestrained murder of the cult envoy, and her malicious acts of feeding. As a newly-created vampire in flashback, she lurches out of the sea like of Jean Rollin’s murdered waifs in Les Demoniaques (1973), a close relative of this film, to attack a fisherman with a relish that seems at once deadly and playful. She later taunts Eleanor’s prissy English teacher (an unbilled Tom Hollander) with the important details of her background that Eleanor doesn’t know before killing him. Jordan’s Catholic themes – his fascination for the damage done to the soul in acts of survival and defiance of social will, the motif of confession as prelude to redemption – blend in peculiar ways with the aspects here that rethink the genre’s basis in rigid religious moralism, keeping the film's essential thesis in flux and essentially concluding that its vampires are best by as many temptations to good and evil as any mortal. The notion that the eternal life of the vampires fails to release them from their self-imposed neuroses and strictures, is one Jordan played in Interview with the Vampire, but where that film became soporific in its adolescent self-seriousness, enforced by fidelity to its cheesy source, Byzantium is far more sustained and successful.
Jordan remains gifted in his ability capture and sustain a sense of context to define the tone of his film. As with Ondine, he’s able to turn remarkably clear cinematography on his seaside settings and, without violating his nominally realistic sense of locale, conjure a dreamy texture. His crisply framed widescreen shots, courtesy of DP Sean Bobbitt, of the coast offers liminal horizons, whilst the creeping decay of the urban world, like Frank’s cavernous hotel and the concrete wilderness Eleanor stalks at the start, suggest a human world that’s cold and inimical to outsiders and all too willing to let extremities die off. Brighton Pier, the place of emotional crucifixion in Mona Lisa, now stands burnt out and skeletal, psychological emblem for the characters who haunt their own lives. Eleanor “sees” her own mother in her human days, a consumptive wretch rotting away even in her fecund youthful beauty, treading the sands by the pier, an image opposed by Cara’s present-day form in lethal high-heels, stalking with malignant humour towards the unwitting Frank. The cage elevator of Mona Lisa returns for another nail-biting set-piece of grimly intimate revulsion. The binaries inherent in the tale are carefully illustrated and made manifest with restraint, cold and warmth, blood and death, love and cruelty constantly circling each-other, converging in striking moments of awful intimacy, as when Eleanor feeds from her elderly victims, giving them relief but still revolting her fine feelings in the sensual delight she takes in the act, and made sickly by the power of her desire as she’s confronted by a gruesome wad of cloth caked with Frank’s blood. At its best in moments like this, Byzantium roars with rare vivacity. In spite of its frustrating aspects (which may, on repeat viewings, disperse entirely), it still stands as easily the best vampire movie since 30 Days of Night (2007), and indeed probably since Shimako Sato’s Tale of a Vampire (1992), as well as another fine addition to Jordan’s career which, in spite of many missteps, still produces compelling reasons to keep watching.