Popular culture of late has been saturated with vampires, whether they are in high school or hanging out in Louisiana. However every now and then you have one creative story that can bring inject new blood to the genre. The British-Irish production “Byzantium,” written by Moira Buffini and directed by Neil Jordan, is such a movie. It bears some similarities to Jordan’s other great entry in the genre, 1994’s “Interview with the Vampire,” in that it features two vampires who feast on blood across the centuries in vastly different ways. Yet “Byzantium” is its own beast and will be just as memorable over time.
The main difference is that instead of two male vampires, here we have two women trying to survive time and each other. Saoirse Ronan plays Eleanor Webb, a 16-year-old girl who has been that young for over 200 years. In order to stay alive she feeds off human blood, but prefers to get it from old people who are ready to die and welcome her action. Clara (Gemma Arterton), Eleanor’s mother, is far less selective and kills anyone who is a threat to her or she deems unworthy to be alive.
After a deadly encounter with another member of the undead, the two flee to a coastal town to start over. They have been at this for a long time and Eleanor is getting sick of their lifestyle. It is rather gloomy, as Clara never tries to do anything other than use her overwhelming sexuality to make ends meet. After seducing Noel (Daniel Mays), a sad man who owns an abandoned hotel called the Byzantium, Clara turn his premises into a brothel with junkies off the street. Meanwhile Eleanor tries to find a semblance of normality by going to school and befriending Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), a fellow student.
Sadly for her, normality is a threat. Frank is dying from leukemia and the treatments make him bleed easily. That is like a cat befriending a very juicy mouse. Realizing this coastal town is the same place where her story began centuries ago, Eleanor feels compelled to write her biography as a school assignment. This places her teachers in danger since Clara will do anything to keep their secret hidden, even if that means killing an innocent school teacher and having to start over yet again. Meanwhile, danger is coming towards the two women in the form of an ancient brotherhood of vampires who are unhappy the two have joined their boys’ club.
For a vampire movie, this is a very human drama. In the original “Dracula” novel women are either victims or servants of the vampire. In “Byzantium” flashbacks to their early lives shows they started as victims, but took control of their lives. Clara was forced into prostitution by an evil man and when she saw an opportunity to become more than human she took it along with her bloody vengeance. Everything she does is for her daughter, but no matter how long she lives she seems doomed to repeat the past.
Ronan and Arterton both do an excellent job carrying the movie as two characters with a very different outlook on life as an undead. For Clara lying is a way of life and she chooses to live in the moment, never looking back. Eleanor on the other hand constantly writes about the past, sometimes throwing the pages to the wind. She longs to tell her story, but with Clara by her side that would mean spilling more blood.
Red is a color that is of course ever-present throughout the story, from Eleanor’s hood to a cascade of blood flowing on a rocky island. Here is a vampire story that is dark, gothic, sexy, and bloody as hell.
(“Byzantium” is available on DVD and Blu-Ray and is streaming on Netflix.)