With so many of these young adult novel movie adaptations being churned out, and with so many being about vampires, I just assumed that Byzantium was another fluffy picture about struggling vamps and sparkly skin. Then I found out that director Neil Jordan, the director of Interview With A Vampire, had the reigns on this one, and my faith in Byzantium showing some fangs increased enough to spark some intrigue. Could Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arterton provide a vampire duo worthy of their typically dark title? Or would Neil Jordan’s latest fall under the ongoing trend of lifeless vampiric lore? Spoiler alert: it’s somewhere in the middle.
Byzantium follows two female vampires named Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) and her guardian Clara (Gemma Arterton) as they attempt to assimilate into our human society. Traveling from town to town once their secret is found out, Eleanor struggles with keeping her secret under wraps, while Clara has her own struggles making Eleanor understand that their true identities may never be revealed, killing off anyone unlucky enough to discover their blood-sucking identity. But if living as a vampire wasn’t hard enough, Eleanor and Clara are also being hunted by a brotherhood of vampires known as “The Pointed Nails Of Justice” who disapprove of their existence, only making their secrecy that much more important. Can our vampire girls avoid being erased from the earth, or will they spend the rest of their life running from their past?
Comparatively, Neil Jordan and writer Moira Buffini’s latest take on vampires diverges from the typical vampire mythos we’ve grown accustomed to, switching up the transformation process from a simple bite to a lavish ritual. Actually, Byzantium has removed the whole biting aspect almost completely, as these vampires choose to stab their victims open, then just suck the blood out. Treating people like human Capri-Sun pouches, you’ll see the vampire’s nail extend into a sharp point, they’ll make a quick entry point into one of your main arteries, and they’ll just suck away at your juices. There’s no turning, you don’t get the gift of immortality – you just die. If you want to become a vampire yourself, you must first be prepared to die, then travel to a rocky island where a cave is located, and only there can you be accepted into this brotherhood of vampires – as long as you’re truly ready. Referred to as succubi in the film, Jordan offers a different take on the vampires that pop-culture has so successfully stripped of all terror.
Byzantium also offers stunning visuals given the coastal town that Eleanor and Clara settle down in, from the boardwalk scenery to the exquisite hotel these two call home. The most amazing set-piece of all is the island where people go to turn into vampires though, as the gorgeous waterfalls and rock formations undergo their own transformation that parallels the events happening in the small cave. As you turn into a vampire, all the waterfalls cascading down around the cave entrance start to spurt bright-red colored water (presumably blood?) and bats come flying out of every opening in a memorable flash of stylistic beauty. Jordan always keeps with a vibrant color palette in presenting his scenes, adding distinct details for a wonderful, aesthetically pleasing physical experience.
Where Jordan’s film falters is in Moira Buffini’s script though, carrying on entirely too long and without proper motivations at times. I understand that “The Pointed Nails Of Justice” is a boys club and Clara apparently broke their coveted rules, but I still feel that the whole ongoing chase was still without proper revelations. Buffini attempts to intertwine Eleanor and Clara’s backstory as the real-time events of their fleeing play out, but by the time both roads meet, questions still remained instead of conclusions being reached.
Not to mention, Jordan’s pacing doesn’t do much in the case of tension, making Byzantium more of a drama than horror film with all the focus on keeping secrets hidden and being afraid to show who one really is. Speaking as a metaphor for life on a larger scale, the vessel of the vampire actually takes away from thematic elements because vampires take us out of reality, making problems less relatable. Unfortunately, I believe Byzantium took itself a little too seriously in the face of repetitive and unclear storytelling.
That’s not to say Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arterton didn’t do a wonderful job as their on-screen vampires. They didn’t really have to turn ferocious or evil, so their roles were created using more human traits than fantastical ones. I absolutely loved Gemma Arterton’s take on the succubi lifestyle though, embracing the sensual, dark sexiness that vampires should have. There’s one particular scene where she’s letting a poor victim know the truth about her just as she’s about to kill him, but she does so in a very seductive manner, touching him and getting extremely close – but still keeping fear intact. Still obvious is her darkness, but it’s almost as if she’s getting a sick pleasure out of the scenario. It’s refreshing to see vampires be portrayed as the lustful killers they are, but conveying a proper tone is only half the battle.
Despite a story that drags on far too long, Neil Jordan has created a film in Byzantium that can be applauded for artistic prowess, if nothing else. Vampire films are becoming harder and harder to keep fresh, but breathtaking visuals surely make one of these generic stories much easier to accept. I admire Moira Buffini for attempting to create a different breed of vampire as well, stepping away from the neck-biting norm, but not enough time was spent showing us exactly what “The Pointed Nails Of Justice” stood for. As far as we’re concerned, all they do is hunt Eleanor and Clara. Maybe with a little more explanation, the female vampire’s banishment could have been understood with more clarity, adding a little more intrigue to the overall story. Unfortunately, this is not the case, and it highlights the biggest problem with Neil Jordan’s film.