When I sat down to watch Neil Jordan’s masterful 2012 vampire film, Byzantium, I was filled with more than a little apprehension. I gave up on the “beautiful” vampire some time in the late 1990s when Lestat, protagonist of Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles, was busy entertaining self-indulgent and mediocre conversations with God and the Devil in Memnoch the Devil (a largely forgettable novel). “That’s it!” I thought, and throwing the book to the ground, I vowed to never again indulge in the onanistic drivel of most teen goths. Don’t even get me started on the Twilight franchise. More on Byzantium after the jump.
I’m not even sure why I decided to watch the film. Jordan had already shown his colours when it came to vampires (thank you very much, Messrs Cruise and Pitt), and I don’t think I had really enjoyed a film by him since 1997’s The Butcher Boy. Perhaps it was due to nostalgia and the knowledge that despite, say, the puerile content of Interview With the Vampire, Jordan is an exceptional filmmaker (if you haven’t seen The Crying Game or The Butcher Boy, you really must work on remedying this gaping hole in your film knowledge). Or perhaps it was due to Saoirse Ronan, who simply knocked my socks off in Joe Wright’s 2011 thriller, Hanna (again, if you haven’t seen it, fix this). While Byzantium’s poster made me roll my eyes, I still hit play on Netflix.
I don’t believe I have ever been so happy to be so wrong. The film is at once beautiful, terrifying, poignant, multi-layered, and subversive – there are few films that have left me, mouth agape, counting down the days until I could watch it again.
Based on a play by the film’s screenwriter, Moira Buffini, the film surrounds the lives of two immortal women, Eleanor (Ronan) and Clara (Gemma Arterton), who take refuge in a small English seaside town, as they are on the run from some sort of Authority. The nature of their crime(s) isn’t made clear for some time, but it’s clear that they wish to remain hidden, and, if possible, to be forgotten. Eleanor, who writes Clara’s and her story over and over, only to throw it to the sea in fragments, starts to make friends with Frank (played by Caleb Landry Jones, who is just fantastic) and attempts to eke out what she can of a regular life, but that life is forever tainted and perhaps just a dream.
A huge part of the film’s strength relies on its intricate narrative, and it would do a disservice to the viewer to lay things bare here, but the interconnectedness of character, place, relationships, and time is simply staggering in this film. There were several times when I found myself dizzy with its textual layering; Inception has nothing on this film. I’m astonished that this was once a stage production (I can only imagine that the film split some roles), and the only element that hints at its origins is the limited number of settings, but even then I wonder how it was done.
Eleanor and Clara (played amazingly by Ronan and Arterton) straddle worlds upon worlds: mortality and immortality; the real world and the fantastical; the “acceptable” world and its underbelly; the social stratification of the upper and lower classes; progress and decay; abuse and love; and, most importantly, the role of women in a patriarchy. The role of gender cannot be understated in this film, nor can the love between its protagonists. Their relationship is one of the film’s strongest narrative elements. Their motives are questionable at times, but when considered, it’s for one another and to find a place in a world that refuses to accept them. While Ronan had impressed me before, I’d never seen Arterton play such an interesting and multi-faceted character. Ronan’s Eleanor is the more sympathetic of the two, but Arterton’s Clara is arguably the most interesting character in the film. Her motives are at once questionable but reveal an unshakeable purpose based solely in love.
As this is Biff Bam Pop’s 31 Days of Horror, however, I feel something also needs to be said about what makes this film so damned scary. The answer is two-fold: 1. How they become vampires – picture Celtic mythology, Celtic monasticism, rains of blood, existentialism, and Arnold Böcklin, and you’ll get the tiniest of hints. They’re not draped in entrails below a mistletoe tree or anything; think more along the lines of Beehive monastic cells and things coming out of the dark. 2. And the worst character in the film, a mortal man named Ruthven (the only name that is a nod to earlier vampire stories – though I suppose Clara could be a play on Carmilla), played by Jonny Lee Miller. Rarely have I found someone so abhorrent in a film. His mere presence on the screen is nauseating, and I feel Miller is the reason behind this (I suppose we can now forgive him for his role in Dracula: 2000); his first appearance (a flashback) colours your thinking towards him and with good reason. The film has its share of villainy, but most of its darkness and outright evil is made manifest in this syphilitic demagogue.
I can’t say Byzantium will scare the pants off you, but for those with a love of stories within stories within stories, and potentially encyclopedic narratives, the film will leave you reeling. I recognize this is not the typical vampire film, and therefore not for all fans of the genre, but it’s one that I am growing to love.