Reviewed by Ian Forbes
Director Neil Jordan is no stranger to supernatural creatures on film. While his 1984 The Company of Wolves may not ring a bell with a large portion of the populace, 94’s Interview with the Vampire might; though perhaps mostly due to the casting of Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, along with being based on an Anne Rice novel.
Well now comes another vampire tale from the auteur who has also brought forth critically acclaimed works like The Crying Game, The End of the Affair, The Butcher Boy, and Ondine. This one’s called Byzantium and have no fear, it was originally conceived prior to sparkly vampires becoming all the rage (thankfully that franchise is now as lifeless as its actors’ performances). However, that doesn’t mean this is your traditional vampire tale.
These vampires can walk around in the daylight (without looking like they were cheaply bedazzled), puncture veins in an alternate manner than the fangs Goths like to sport at a Cure concert, and creating one of these creatures is a bit different from the romanticized, pseudo sexual act of biting someone’s neck. But don’t worry, I won’t spoil the differences, as that’s something for audiences to discover on their own.
The story centers on two mysterious women (Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan), who are forced out on the run after an equally mysterious man is able to find them. Answers to who he is, what he represents, and why the women are being sought, come along the way but the true heart of the matter is the relationship between Arterton and Ronan, and Ronan’s increasing desire to make a change to the repeating pattern of their very long lives. The introduction of a boy (Caleb Landry Jones) who falls instantly for Ronan and the revealing of Arterton’s long-held secrets provide the catalyst for that change.
Performance wise, while some of the supporting characters didn’t leave much of a mark, Arterton and Ronan really sell their characters and the result is a rather fascinating tale. While I expect wonderful acting from Ronan at this point (which is remarkable considering she was born in 1994, a year before I graduated high school), the surprise of the bunch is Arterton. She hasn’t become a household name, though one might recognize her from being a Bond girl (in the awful Quantum of Solace), the love interest in the awful remake of Clash of the Titans, or as Gretel in Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (which was sort of awful but there was some fun to be had in all the ridiculousness). In Byzantium, Arterton delivers the goods. Had this been an acting contest, Ronan is clearly the superior of the two but they mesh well with each other and there are a number of sacrifices Arterton must make to provide for the pair of them and the emotional drain and steely nerve necessary for those actions come through excellently.
Though there’s not much to write home about when it comes to the other elements of the production. Jordan’s direction is good and working with the crew, there are a few very interesting shots. However, little beyond the Arterton/Ronan relationship truly registers at the level I’ve come to expect from a Jordan production and a key effect related to the manner in which new immortals are created looks a bit too much like something you’d see on the SyFy channel; which is a shame because the idea of it is very cool (sorry for the vagueness but it’s better to be surprised by it).
So while Byzantium isn’t going to find itself among the very best of Jordan’s work, this is still quite an interesting film. It’s easily the best vampire movie since Let the Right One In and ranks high on my personal favorites when it comes to the blood-suckers. Much of that is due to this not really being about vampirism. Like Let the Right One In, there’s an emotional core and story that is the true engine of the film. Both are compelling dramas that just happen to have vampires as the main characters. The inclusion of the mythology adds a wonderful extra layer to the overall production but it doesn’t work if the central themes aren’t handled as well as it is.
So if you’re looking for the average gore fest, Byzantium isn’t for you. Yes, there is a good deal of blood and a few people may lose their heads and perhaps even be set on fire. However, that’s all red-stained window dressing for the story and its central actresses’ performances. My enjoyment may just be because of how much I enjoy Jordan’s films, it might just be because of how much I enjoy Saoirse Ronan’s acting, it could even just be because I’m a sucker for stories so full of angst; but the bottom line is that this is one of my favorite films of 2013 so far. It’s a welcome departure from all of the brainless big budget bonanzas of the summer and if you’re the type of person who appreciates the work of any of those involved in its creation, this isn’t something you should miss.
Byzantium is rated R for bloody violence, sexual content and language.
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