Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arterton commit to this vampire silliness, but the movie drowns in overblown histrionics
Traditionally, vampires have impressive abilities to shape-shift, to hunt and to live eternally, as long as they stay away from wooden stakes and crucifixes.
Director Neil Jordan, the creator of such contemporary classics as "The Crying Game," "The Company of Wolves," "The Butcher Boy" and "Mona Lisa," stands above the pack as one of this generation's great filmmakers — as long as he stays away from vampires.
His 1994 adaptation of Anne Rice's "Interview with the Vampire" was a supremely silly bit of piffle, most remembered for Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise and young Kirsten Dunst playing out screeching domestic drama in breeches and velvet. With "Byzantium," Jordan returns to the crypt only to find that these bloodsucker stories apparently have the effect on his filmmaking skills that garlic and holy water have on Dracula.
Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) has been undead for several centuries, but she still acts like the petulant teen she was when she ceased to be human. In breathy voiceover, she tells us that she is doomed to tell her life story over and over again to deaf ears. In her best emo style, she writes pages and pages of longhand, only to throw them out the window or into the sea.
That story involves her vampire companion Clara (Gemma Arterton), who takes care of the two of them, usually as a stripper or as a call girl, two career paths that allow her to get men alone so that she can drain their blood and their wallets. (The more gentle Eleanor feeds off of the elderly who are so close to death that they welcome her pointy thumbnail going into one of their major arteries.)
Clara and Eleanor are constantly on the run from a shadowy cabal of male vampires who are in hot pursuit, although obviously not so hot that these two women haven't managed to stay ahead of them for several hundred years. They wind up in one of those bleak British seaside resorts, where Clara seduces Noel (Daniel Mays), the hapless owner of the Byzantium, a hotel that she promptly turns into a bordello.
Eleanor, meanwhile, falls for local boy Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), a student and part-time waiter whose body's inability to clot makes him either the best or worst possible love interest for her. She joins him in a creative writing class and uses the opportunity to spill out her biography, which involves the sad story of how Clara was converted. That process involves a very silly image of waterfalls running red with blood — Jordan, unfortunately, is so taken with it that he repeats it four or five times before the movie ends.
Ronan and Arterton are fine actresses, and the impressive ensemble also includes Thure Lindhart ("Keep the Lights On"), Jonny Lee Miller and Tom Hollander, but there's only so much that anyone can do with the dialogue by Moira Buffini, adapting her own teleplay. Lines like "The pearl stays pure while the oyster's flesh rots around it" or "Would you like to kiss me? In celebration of my wickedness?" or "Some things are forever — we are the pointed nails of justice" confound any efforts to make them sound less than ridiculous.
We've seen these star-crossed teens and vampire hookers and secret societies many times before, and Jordan never finds away to make them feel fresh. Skip "Byzantium" and track down the director's previous film, the lovely and under-seen mermaid tale "Ondine," and let that tide you over until the next movie he makes which, with any luck, will leave the vamps locked away in their coffins.
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