Review: ‘Byzantium’ Is a Refreshing Take on the Vampire Genre

By  · Published on June 27th, 2013

From The Company of Wolves to Interview with a Vampire, director Neil Jordan has made some of the most entertaining, if modest, melodramatic treasures of the horror genre. There is a certain moodiness he brings to these worlds, especially if there’s fangs involved, that leads to a unique canvas that’s easy to lose one’s self in, flaws and all. That remains the case for his latest vampire picture, Byzantium, an intimate and yet occasionally grand picture.

Jordan milks every gorgeous location at his disposal to tell Clara’s (Gemma Arterton) story. Clara, who grew up during in the Napoleonic Wars, has adjusted easily to her vampire lifestyle, although she’s still trying to figure out how to be a good mother to her unsatisfied daughter, Eleanor (Saorise Ronan). The two have lived as wanderering loners together, never staying in one place for too long. There’s a reason why: vampirism is a brotherhood, making Clara and Eleanor outcasts in the boys club. When Clara turned, she was rejected by her fellow vampires, forcing her to get by on her own.

Cutting to modern day, an unknown vampire shows up to chase Clara down, causing her and Eleanor to once again pack up and start a new life. With the help of a bumbling hotel owner, Clara convinces him to allow her and her daughter to stick around in his dwindling family business. Clara, a stripper/prostitute, turns the man’s dying motel into a brothel. For a small portion of the film, Byzantium becomes the Risky Business of vampire movies. Seeing a vampire pimp is plenty of fun, but that light-hearted business venture doesn’t last long.

Of course, with vampires involved, plenty of gloom and death is bound to happen, especially with the film’s debbie downer, Eleanor. The character of Eleanor is where Byzantium’s main problem arises, leading to nagging dramatic and logistical qualms. She begins a romance with Frank (Caleb Laundry Jones), a sick kid who has nothing more than a boyhood crush on Eleanor. Out of their love, both characters make annoying decisions that beg the question, “What do they actually see in each other?” They’re both isolated figures with a “disease,” but is that all? The end of the film somewhat rests on their relationship, but the emotion simply isn’t there for it to match Byzantium’s true heart shared between Eleanor and Clara.

Structurally their relationship is problematic as well: Frank submits an essay Eleanor wrote about herself for a class, discussing her and her mother’s true life – a subplot that isn’t engaging or believable. For one thing, it makes Frank even more distancing, with the fact that he would submit Eleanor’s paper against her wishes. The annoyance aside, it’s difficult to empathize with their acts and relationship, especially since it causes a fair share of bloodshed and drama for surrounding characters. This would be fine if that seemed like the point of their romance, that a relationship with a vampire is a destructive business, not some kind of soapy fantasy. However, there’s never the sense that that’s what Jordan is aiming for; he wants you to care for these two characters.

What’s not as problematic is Arterton’s performance. She’s mostly recognizable from some blockbusters that didn’t fare well with critics, Clash of the Titans and The Prince of Persia, but Arterton has proven herself as an actress with range in The Disappearance of Alice Creed, Tamara Drewe, and now with the assistance of Jordan. Clara is a character with warmth, charm, and fury, all tonal shifts Arterton jumps from seamlessly. The drama behind this mother trying to hold onto her daughter as she drifts further and further away is when Jordan is at his best, along with the bloodier side of things. Jordan shoots the hell out of extended vampire nails in this movie, with the mere sight of them causing your spine to tingle. Every instance of violence is like a portrait, with bold colors and precise framing.

Byzantium isn’t style over substance, but with a more taught script – less Frank, more of Sam Riley as a leader of the vampire brotherhood – it could’ve been one of Jordan’s more accomplished films. It’s not, but there’s nothing wrong with that either. The movie is minimal in its ultimate ambitions, and for the most part, it reaches them with Jordan’s keen direction and Arterton.

The Upside: Arterton’s dynamic performance; technically speaking, the film impresses; actor Tom Holland (Hanna) makes a diverting subplot tolerable; a surprising amount of laughs

The Downside: Saorise Ronan’s most frustrating character yet, which is saying a lot; a “love story” that never connects; and, if Sam Riley was more present, his character’s final choice would have more impact

On The Side: The film is based on a play of the same name written by Moira Buffini.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.