Movie Review: "Byzantium"
Length: 118 minutes
Release Date: June 28, 2013 (limited)
Directed by: Neil Jordan
Genre: Fantasy, Thriller, Drama
Stars: 3.5 out of 5
"Twilight" let viewers see vampires as romantic and simple creatures. In his film "Byzantium," director Neil Jordan reminds the viewer that the classic vampire tale is a little darker.
Clara (Gemma Arterton, "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters") is a centuries-old vampire with a teenage daughter named Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan, "The Lovely Bones"). When a group of men arrive at their house to kill them, the two must run away from their home. They find their way to a small town, and when they meet Noel (Daniel Mays, "The Adventures of Tintin"), he offers them a place to stay.
If the film's beginning sounds a little like "Frankenstein," viewers should stick around for the second half. Once Clara and Eleanor settle in their new home, Clara discovers prostitutes working nearby, and she encourages the women to work for her. While Clara takes on the role of madam, Eleanor attempts to live life as a normal teenage girl-which is difficult, as both she and her mother are vampires.
"Byzantium" asks viewers to take everything they've learned from recent vampire films and throw it out the window, and that's easy to do once those viewers learn more about the characters. Arterton is easily the highlight of the film, conveying a character who is equal parts terrifying and sympathetic. Viewers will see how she became a prostitute because men forced her into the job, and while a vampire acting as a madam might seem a little campy, viewers will understand that she cares about liberating the females of the village. By showing the women that they can control their destinies, she helps them escape exploitation by the men in the village. It doesn't hurt that Arterton manages to look elegant and sexy in nearly every scene she has.
As good as Arterton is in her role, it seems that "Byzantium" is really a film built for Ronan. After a lackluster performance in 2013's "The Host," based on a book written by the author of the "Twilight" novels, she bounces back in this film. Saoirse Ronan's Eleanor is a young woman trapped between living life as an innocent teen, and satisfying her thirst for blood. When she discovers elderly people in town who need help in ending their lives, she discovers a way to have it all. By drinking their blood, she satisfies her thirst, while also helping those victims end their suffering.
Neil Jordan last ventured into the world of vampires in "Interview with a Vampire," but he does such a good job here that some might forget about his previous film. While Jordan brings in elements of classic vampire tales, he also introduces some new elements and fun moments that pay homage to the films he loved as a child as well as his own earlier film work. Eagle-eyed viewers will catch a glimpse of a character in a red jacket that harkens back to his film "The Company of Wolves." He even pokes fun at the idea of a modern-day vampire with a small joke about "Twilight."
While "Byzantium" is a vampire tale, it is much more than a horror film. Instead of biting victims with fangs, these vampires slice their fingernails across victims' throats, lavishing the way the blood sputs from their bodies. Those expecting to see characters burst into flames when exposed to sunlight might feel a little disappointed, as these vampires have no problem spending time in the sun.
"Byzantium" also has a few surprises in store, particularly with regard to the events that caused these women to become vampires. It doesn't take viewers long to learn that Clara and Eleanor are actually sisters, but because Clara is responsible for her sister's condition, she treats Eleanor like a daughter. Viewers also learn that Eleanor has a connection to her victims. Every person she interacts with is someone she knew years ago. While she might look like just another teenager, Eleanor has lived for centuries, and she wishes she had the chance to grow and age.
"Byzantium" is a thought-provoking horror film. This isn't the type of film that focuses on blood and gore; it goes deeper than that. Viewers will learn more about Clara, Eleanor, and the characters they interact with and will find themselves feeling sympathetic toward them. With "Byzantium," Jordan shows that he still knows his way around a dark and intriguing film.