Byzantium sees legendary director Neil Jordan return to the world of Gothic vampirism for the first time since 1994’s Interview with the Vampire. From a script written by Moira Buffini adapted from her play, the plot focuses on 200-plus year old mother and daughters vampires, doing their best to adapt while on the move from place to place throughout the times.
While this is certainly no Interview With the Vampire in terms of character development, mythology or (perhaps most importantly) a distinct sense of time and place it is nevertheless a nicely atmospheric addition to the vampire canon. It works very hard from the get-go to make you believe in its vampire world and you’re positively steeped in it from the get-go.
However, the actual vampire mythology itself is less developed than it should have been as it needed to go a bit more in depth with how it’s playing around with the various established rules. For instance it’s never really explained why these particular vampires can go out in sunlight and that aspect is actually brushed aside as somewhat of an afterthought when it’s obviously one of the more important aspects of vampire mythology.
It’s a very well cast film, with plenty of recognisable faces playing the types of characters we’ve not really see them play before. Saoirse Ronan is a solid anchor for us throughout as she partly narrates her life story which her (over)protective mother insets on being kept secret. There’s a very interesting performance from Gemma Arterton who really gets to sink her teeth, so to speak, into a strong, complex and compelling character. We also have solid supporting turns from the likes of Daniel Mays as an emotional man seduced into helping the two, Tom Hollander as a suspicious self-help teacher, Sam Riley as a detective who is more than meets the eye and a gleefully over-the-top Jonny Lee Miller.
The film is framed as a back-and-forth between present day where Clara is running a brothel out of the hotel called Byzantium and the past to show how she and her daughter became vampires and just why it is they are now always on the run. It partly works but suffers from a feeling of not really being able make up its mind what sort of movie it wants to be; the more thriller-centric present can sometimes take away from the Interview with the Vampire-lite past and vice-versa. A commitment to consistency of style makes it admirable in intention even as it’s flawed in execution.
It’s nice to see Jordan return to this sort of elegant yet grotesque and uncompromising filmmaking, with a fresh spin on the well-trodden vampire genre. Pleasingly unafraid to graphically show on-screen the requisite blood-sucking and never sparing on the gore, this is also unashamedly action-packed when it needs to be, with a few more foot chases and the like than you might be expecting but it punctuates the proceedings with those rather than becoming the point.
Overall the film is certainly not without its deep flaws, chief among them is the fact that it tends to drag at points and maybe could have done with about 20 minutes shaved off its runtime. But this slightly weird, slightly off-balance and always visually beautiful maternal vampire story is a journey worth taking, warts and all.
This review was also published in The Journal.