Review: “Byzantium”

Gemma Arterton stars in Neil Jordan's "Byzantium," here reviewed by film critic Danny Baldwin.Neil Jordan’s “Byzantium,” the filmmaker’s first return to vampires since 1994’s massive Cruise-Pitt success “Interview with the Vampire,” is the best kind of genre film, which is to say the kind of genre film that makes you forget it’s a genre film. Yes, we’ve encountered variations of this story onscreen dozens of times before, but “Byzantium” couldn’t have less of a “been there, done that”-feel because it’s so stylistically immersive. From the frenetic first action sequence, a chase which begins in a strip club and ends with a particularly creative decapitation, to the mythology- and symbolism-laden final scene, Jordan hoists us too far into the sleazy, sexy, gruesome moment for us to ever contemplate whether the movie is substantively original enough to justify its existence.

That chase sequence, which is made up of what seems like over 100 shots but couldn’t be less MTV-like thanks to cinematographer Sean Bobbit’s feel for space and scope, is so stylistically virtuosic—the fluid motion, the selective pops of color—that it comes across as Jordan declaring upfront to the audience, “You’re in good hands, just enjoy the ride.” This proves not to be cocky in the least, for the filmmaker sustains his technically immaculate approach throughout, each scene overflowing with atmosphere that breathes new life into the dual dynamic of sexuality and morbidity that has become a vampire staple. Plus, Jordan’s got two magnetic lead performances from Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan to play with, so “Byzantium” isn’t just about pretty pictures (although both actresses are quite pretty).

Arterton and Ronan play mother and daughter, respectively, posing as sisters, some 200 years after their vampiric transformations. They’re fugitives of a sort, resisting vampire higher-ups’ attempts to apprehend them for reasons initially unknown to the audience. After a close-call culminating in the aforementioned decapitation, they quietly move to the titular seaside inn, where Arterton’s Clara starts up a prostitution business, her go-to means for getting by over the centuries. Even though these vampires are unaffected by sunlight—one of three key deviations from convention by screenwriter Moira Buffini, the other two being that they kill by claw instead of fang and they can be killed themselves—it wouldn’t be a vampire movie without such a dingy, dark setting. When the inn’s neon sign and the LED attractions of the nearby boardwalk aren’t in view, the only source of brightness is Arterton’s voluptuous figure.

As transfixing as Arterton is in her highly physical role, however, the lion’s share of the film’s drama is driven by Ronan’s Eleanor, who desperately wants to confide the details of her unique existence in others, especially love interest Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), despite the necessity of keeping a low profile. Eleanor commits she and Clara’s story, which begins in the Napoleonic War era, to paper, and we see it unfold onscreen bit by bit. Flashbacks are hardly a new institution in vampire narratives—TV’s “True Blood” recalls its male lead’s past in another wartime setting, the American Civil War, for instance—but the way that Jordan uses them to build a complete second narrative here is rewardingly ambitious. There’s a lot of story packed into these 118 minutes.

Is there much more to “Byzantium” than the thrill ride of watching it unfold? Not really, although you could argue that the movie speaks to the inescapability of one’s past and the disenfranchisement of outsiders in society—common themes in vampire works—or that it positions itself an anti-“Twilight” feminist text with its powerful female protagonists. But here’s the thing: very few movies, especially of the genre variety, suck us into their world so completely that we forget about everything outside the theater for two hours. Probably fewer than those that make us think afterwards. As such, “Byzantium” must be cherished; it’s a drug of a film.