The following is a plea to novelists, playwrights, screenwriters and film directors: Enough with the vampires. Neil Jordan should know better. He directed Interview with the Vampire (1994), and it was terrible (correction: it’s still terrible; history has not been kind to it).
There’s nothing new to add to this genre. It doesn’t matter whether the creatures are sleeping in coffins, changing into bats or brooding in the Pacific Northwest. At the end of the day, they drink blood, and that limits the narrative.
Maybe Jordan is trying to get right what was so wrong in his earlier vampire film. But all the preciousness, silliness and overwrought emotions that made Interview such a downer are present here. It’s too bad. When Jordan sticks to the mood created by the blighted seaside town in which mother and daughter vampires Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) settle, Byzantium does well enough. When it dips into the characters’ backstory, the thing I kept thinking was, “Who cares?”
I’m not being entirely fair. There is one nugget in Byzantium that’s different from other vampire stories of recent telling that seems worth delving into: Until Clara and Eleanor come along, all vampires are male, and all of them are total misogynists (they’d probably deny that). It’s a thread that goes largely unspoken, even if elements of it linger throughout the story in the guise of Clara’s latter-day professions and its limitations. But it’s largely unexplored, and when it’s finally dealt with, it’s obvious, heavy-handed and dumb, much like the rest of the story.
In roughly 1800, Clara (played as a young woman by Caroline Johns) is barely making a living at the seaside, collecting oysters for money. She’s tricked into following a horrible naval officer (Jonny Lee Miller) into town, and he forces her into prostitution. A few years later, Clara gives birth to Eleanor, and promptly sends her to an orphanage.
But this is the movies and, more specifically, a vampire movie, and there are rules: Eleanor must become a vampire, and it must torture her. (The one fun thing in Interview with a Vampire, Lestat’s cheerful preying on the weak, is absent here.)
In the present day, Clara finds a would-be john who owns a run-down boarding house. She convinces him to turn it into a brothel, and everything is going smoothly until Eleanor gets an assignment in school to write a completely truthful autobiographical essay. She writes it, and gives it to fellow student Frank (Caleb Landry Jones, the opposite of sexy), who has developed a crush on her. He’s horrified for her, and turns the story over to his professor. Bad things follow. See if you can guess what they are before the cast does.
It’s not that Byzantium is bad, it’s just that there isn’t a fresh idea or emotion dredged up during its elephantine 113 minutes. The 19th century sections really slow things to a crawl. It doesn’t help that the brothel is called “Byzantium” (get it?), and that the movie skips back and forth clumsily between the present and the past.
Once again, Ronan is much better than the movie deserves (see also: The Host, Hanna and the egregious The Lovely Bones…or don’t). She infuses the moping she’s called upon to do with a pathos Moira Buffini’s screenplay doesn’t earn. Ronan is an adult now, so perhaps her next few movies will give her an opportunity to stretch (though one of those upcoming movies is written and directed by Wes Anderson, so don’t count on it).
Arterton has worse luck. She’s tasked with being sexy, nobly accepting her lot in the (after)life, and talking with a ridiculous accent that she doesn’t pull off, all while suffering through Miller yelling things such as, “Curse you, whore! Give me the dark!” Plus there’s a waterfall of blood that looks like cranberry juice and a group of vampires that look like extras from The Adjustment Bureau. Watch Tod Browning’s Dracula instead. It’s corny, but at least it’s only 75 minutes.
Directed by Neil Jordan
With Gemma Arterton, Saoirse Ronan and Jonny Lee Miller