Almost twenty years after Interview with the Vampire (1994), Neil Jordan returns to horror with an uneven but literate canter through a rich canon of vampire mythology. Byzantium’s (2012) novelistic sweep covers the breadth of the folkloric canon, from Bram Stoker to Stephenie Meyer. While there’s frequently a lack of coherent purpose in the indiscriminate influence-hopping, Byzantium has sufficient panache to sustain itself with its considered comment on gender in genre pictures. The strong performances and handsome photography also go some way to compensate for the vamp drama’s chronic lack of discipline.
Byzantium centres around single mother and vampire Clara (Gemma Arterton) who supports her reserved sister Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) by soliciting around the amusement arcades of rundown English seaside towns. While Clara is out on the streets, Eleanor spends her days lost in introspection; writing her life’s story and wandering the beaches plagued by visions of herself among a flock of Georgian schoolgirls. One evening, Clara meets Noel (Daniel Mays), a recently bereaved loner who has inherited a hotel called ‘Byzantium’ which he has let run into disrepair. Kind-hearted Noel invites the pair to move in with him, but it’s not long before Clara’s past begins to catch up with her, putting them all in danger.
Jordan’s principal achievement with Byzantium is in crafting a female-driven vampire film with cool muscularity that avoids any sense of lasciviousness or cynically ineffectual romanticism. While its progressive gender politics are far from novel, the film strikes the right balance between the violence and vulnerability of its characters. The film does not ascribe facets of masculinity to its femininity like so many similar films. Indeed, as portrayed by Arterton, Clara is not the schlocky angel of death of the male imagination prevalent in retro B-movies; she is a complex, well-defined character, sympathetic and fearsome in equal measure Byzantium’s weakness lies in its lack of both structural integrity and tonal consistency. In one scene, the film can be a realistically gritty thriller before suddenly shifting into an operatic bloodbath.
While each element may be interesting in and of itself, they fail to coalesce into a satisfying whole. Though the tone veers wildly, the cinematography by Sean Bobbins – known for his acclaimed work on Steve McQueen’s films Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011) – is sleek and moody throughout. This technical proficiency is particularly notable during the film’s more theatrical sequences including a brilliant scene in which Clara stands beneath a waterfall of blood. The flamboyant grandeur of the moment is reminiscent of the unhinged pomp of Jordan’s The Company Wolves (1984).
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