In the 20 years since director Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire first hit our screens, there has been a host of attempts at redefining the vampire genre. If the Twilight franchise has taught us anything, it’s that blood-drinking can be a good financial bet – and given the current fascination, who can blame Jordan for returning to the fray. Adapted from A Vampire Story by British playwright Moira Buffini, Byzantium shakes up the vampire mythos, opting for fangless bloodsuckers who can walk in daylight and use their sexuality as a weapon. It’s beautiful, methodical and incredibly chilling - and Jordan’s best in quite some time.
Borrowing heavily in style and tone from Interview with the Vampire, our story is told over the course of two centuries. In the present day, mother and sister vampires Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) live a nomadic lifestyle, constantly on the run from a satanic looking brotherhood led by the enigmatic Darvell (Sam Riley) owing to circumstances in their past. Desperate for money, Clara rekindles her skills as a ‘lady of the night’ to coerce mumbling hotel owner Noel (Daniel Mays) into letting them to stay with him. It’s not long before Clara is up to her old tricks again, turning the destitute-looking hotel into a lively brothel, aptly named Byzantium.
Switching its focus from the present to the past as Eleanor recounts the trials and tribulations of her 200-year-old existence, Byzantium transports us to 19th century England, where the vicissitudes of the girls’ lives are revealed with beautiful cinematography and an impressive turn from Jonny Lee Miller as the obnoxious naval officer Ruthven. As Clara deals with her newly acquired brothel, Eleanor falls for local heartthrob Frank (Caleb Landry Jones) who constantly seeks her affection and wonders aloud as to her complexities. It’s a testament to Jordan who manages to handle the twin narratives with equally poetic resonance. Rather than place its emphasis on the violence of vampirism, Byzantium is instead determined to become an absorbing and engrossing character study.
While most recent vampire flicks have suffered in terms of spectacle – the likes of Daybreakers and Priest unable to do justice to the atmospheric undertones of their chosen subject matter – Byzantium succeeds with some style, producing a fresh and endearing take on a the vampire craze which has seen the film adaptations of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight novels propelled to near-biblical status in some quarters and Thomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In universally revered. Through sequences in which waterfalls of blood swarm around Arterton’s semi-naked body, numerous beheadings and broad-daylight sexually suggestive vampire feasts, succeeds where others have tried and failed.
To no surprise, Byzantium benefits greatly from its performances. Once again, Ronan proves to the incredulous few that she will be a future Oscar-winner, her ever-intriguing screen presence moulding wonderfully with the alienated personality of Eleanor. Arterton, meanwhile, is splendid as the voluptuous vixen who tries to keep her and her daughter’s darkest secrets at bay. Their chemistry is central to the success of Byzantium, as they feed of each other’s charisma and appetite to bring something different to such a challenging role.
Those hoping for a good fright may want to venture elsewhere as Jordan’s return to form seeks to scare but chills instead. Instead of outright horror, the director opts for an understated approach – gore sensibilities are overlooked in preference of shock effects. Byzantium is smarter, and classier, than those that indulge repeatedly in regurgitated horror tropes, pumping fresh life into the vampire legend.