Dir. Neil Jordan
Byzantium sees Neil Jordan return to vampire territory for the first time since Interview with a Vampire; echoes of which abound throughout this compelling story of a mother and daughter whose dependency upon human blood, and each other, threatens to become their undoing. Adapted for screen by Moira Buffini, and based on her play, A Vampire Story, the film follows bawdy Clara (Gemma Arterton) and introverted Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) as they seek sanctuary in a rundown guesthouse in a quiet English seaside resort.
Not your typical vampire film, its character driven narrative dispels many of the usual traits associated with cinematic bloodsuckers. Dreamily filmed, Jordan’s careful direction beckons us into the story and immerses us within it. Odd and wonderful things are done in the reconstruction of vampire lore - there are no fangs, only thumbnails that become taloned - and while a few conventions remain – blood dependence, immortality, needing to be invited across a threshold – they sit at ease with the unusual mythology created by Buffini. The 'sucreants' as they are called, are an exclusively patriarchal order called The Pointed Nails of Justice (members include Jonny Lee Millar’s sinister Captain Ruthven and Sam Riley’s sensitive Darvell), who must prove their worthiness of immortality, devote their lives to arcane practices and uphold a stringent code. As events unfold we learn that Clara and Eleanor are essentially outlaws from this order, and are being hunted by its members who don’t accept that women can ‘create life.’
Each character struggles with their place in the world. Eleanor longs to tell her secret to someone, to put down roots and lead a settled life. In an attempt to gain catharsis, she writes her story in a notebook, only to tear up the pages and scatter them to the wind. Like Claudia in Interview with a Vampire, she’s trapped in the body of a child for all eternity, and her melancholic disposition stems as much from this as it does from her turbulent relationship with her sister/mother, Clara. The two women have vastly different approaches to survival; this is deftly demonstrated in the opening scenes as Clara, seen working as a dancer in a club, garrottes a mysterious pursuer when he corners her in a dingy flat, while Eleanor, who only accepts blood from consenting individuals tired of living, is seen (re)acquainting herself with an old man who wants to die. Much later, we learn that these individuals knew her in their youth; they are people she shared her secret with, and their realisation of who she is and that her story is true, is quietly moving.
The mystery of why the two women are so nomadic is carefully developed. Clara lives in fear of being discovered and her connection to The Pointed Nails of Justice dogs her. This is conveyed as her back story unfolds through dreams and flashbacks, instigated by Eleanor writing down her story, slowly revealing who the woman are, the bond they share, and how they came to live the lives they do. The transformation sequences, which occur in a mysterious cave on a rocky island, from which flocks of squawking birds erupt and cascade over waterfalls gushing with blood, are strikingly realised and surely amongst Jordan’s most provocative.
The scene where Eleanor is watching Dracula: Prince of Darkness on a TV in the guesthouse – the scene in which Helen is suggestively staked [read by many critics as a rape scene]) – speaks of the sexualised persecution of female vampires throughout cinema and literature, and indeed the plight facing Clara and Eleanor; women who gained the secret of immortality only to be hunted and persecuted by the men they stole it from.
There are also a number of interesting similarities with the elegant and erotic Daughters of Darkness - the coastal guesthouse setting, various sexual liaisons and central female vampire companions - and with Peter Pontikis’s Swedish film Not Like Others, in which two vampire sisters evade attempts on their lives, while one of them struggles to lead a ‘normal’ life.
As lyrical and poetic as any of Jordan’s other film work, Byzantium is infused with poignant moments and striking, fairytale-like imagery. The deeply melancholy score by Javier Navarette echoes his work on Pan’s Labyrinth and richly underpins the sadness of the characters. As the various story strands past and present weave together, the pace picks up and whisks us towards a violent and eventually bittersweet denouement.