Attractive, brooding vampires are about a dime a dozen these days. We could go on and list every current movie, comic book and TV show about immortal blood-suckers but it would literally take up half my word count. So what does this new vampire flick starring Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan have to offer that the others can’t?
Well for one, it’s directed by Neil Jordan, whose last foray in the world of gothic horror gave us the iconic Interview with a Vampire, perhaps the first film to truly make nosferatus sexy. Byzantium is a story much smaller in scale than Anne Rice’s epic saga but it has the same kind of thoughtfulness: along with screenwriter Moira Buffini, he seems interested in exploring the psychological and social effects of being an immortal.
Ronan plays a 200 year-old vampire who has survived the centuries by remaining anonymous and moving from town to town with her mother, who herself makes ends meet by selling her body. We discover that mother dearest (Arterton) was a prostitute back in the early 1800s who defied a coven of wealthy vampires and stole the secret to eternal life to share it with her daughter. And for this reason, they have since been on the run from the Brotherhood of Evil Vampires.
Despite her age, Arterton’s ‘gift’ has allowed her to stay super-hot, a fact we know because she walks around in very little for much of the movie. But for Ronan, immortality means she’s cursed to stay 16 until the end of time: a fact made worse by having to spend eternity living with her mother.
Through her personal writings and late night walks through seaside towns, we sense her loneliness. The only people she ever opens up to are those whose lives she ends: the sick and the elderly for whom she serves as an angel of death. You’d be pretty bummed out as well if you had to murder everyone you ever talked to.
When she and her mother arrive at a new town, Ronan meets a kindred spirit in the form of a sickly young man (Caleb Landry Jones) who works at a local restaurant. Though they seeming share an instant connection, she keeps him at arm’s length: perhaps because she needs to stay hidden; perhaps because she realises that she is like, way old.
Of course, there will be direct parallels drawn with the behemoth that is the Twilight Saga: both are kind of love stories between an attractive vampire and a teenage loner. The major difference is that Byzantium doesn’t work on the assumption that its audience is made up of idiots. The romance is given space to breath and the phenomenon of love is simply explained away by some magic mumbo-jumbo about ‘imprinting’.
When talking about movies, two adjectives thrown around too commonly are ‘dark’ and ‘gritty’. Usually they just mean that a character dies at some point and there are a lot of scenes taking place at night but in this case, Jordan creates a very palpable atmosphere out of a crumbling seaside town and the lonely souls that wander through it. His camera moves under the promenades and through the shabby amusements, making it feel like the stygian pit of solitude.
Aided by a great cast of British character actors that include Tom Hollander, Johnny Lee Miller and Sam Riley, Jordan has directed something incredibly strong: a thoughtful story about teenage vampires that isn’t made for infants. Byzantium is, as they say, a proper film.
Who should watch it: Fans of Interview with a Vampire; Twi-hards who want something a bit more challenging; and anyone curious to see Neil Jordan back on something approaching his top form.
Byzantium is in cinemas Friday 31st May