The shadow of Twilight stretches inexorably over Byzantium, an otherwise handsome vampire drama that marks director Neil Jordan’s return to familiar bloody turf 17 years after he made Interview with the Vampire. Giving neck-chewers back a little bite, Byzantium’s seedy, moody, bloody opening salvo attempts to reclaim the fangified undead from the tween crowd. It just about succeeds.
In a neon-blasted strip club, Clara Webb (Gemma Arterton) performs a lap dance in fishnets and heels. Meanwhile, her daughter Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) encounters an old man on their estate and goes back to his house. Within minutes we’re treated to a thrilling foot chase, some frantic blood-sucking and a spectacularly-staged beheading as this mother and daughter are revealed to be vampires.
Ronan provides lyrical narration (“love confounded her”) while Arterton is engagingly forthright (she’s a vampire and a vamp, hoho). Their relationship is, unsurprisingly, somewhat fraught, especially given they look more like sisters. Things simmer down, though, when Clara and Eleanor head to a sleepy seaside town and take up residence in a rundown hotel. As Clara establishes a brothel to pay the bills, Eleanor struggles with their secret and drip-feeds us the duo’s centuries-spanning history.
More often than not, vampirism in movies is used to comment on everything except vampires – The Addiction used it as a metaphor for AIDS; Blade to tackle racism. Where Byzantiumtriumphs is in employing vampirism as a device that heightens a mother-daughter relationship. Much like the more cult-y Ginger Snaps, Byzantium’s script – by Moira Buffini, who adapts her play ‘A Vampire Story’ – uses neck-chewers to pick apart not only female sexuality, but also the power of the maternal bond and the effect that otherworldly forces have on human relationships.
Given this thematic richness, it comes as a surprise – and a disappointment – that Byzantium ultimately ends up favouring aTwilight-aping romance. While Clara and Eleanor’s fundamental differences are briefly investigated – Clara’s punishment of men who degrade women, Eleanor’s refusal to feed from anybody under 70 – a will-they-won’t-they dalliance between Eleanor and mortal boy Frank (Caleb Landry Jones) bleeds much of the narrative dry.
True, Ronan and Jones have great chemistry, and their romance does occasionally hit upon surprising poignancy, but Byzantiumoften zeroes in on this been-there-moped-that saga at the expensive of Clara and Eleanor’s story. Despite some intriguing early interplay, their scenes quickly devolve into snore-worthy slagging-off matches that belong in EastEnders.
With Jordan at the helm, though, Byzantium is frequently ravishing. Like Interview with the Vampire, this spiritual follow-up involves lush flashback sequences that have fun with vampire lore. And while the stroppy teenager angle is on the stale side,Byzantium is a resolutely adult horror story with interesting – if not revelatory – things to say. 3/5