‘Byzantium’ Has New Vampires That Play by New Rules

The rules of movie vampires have changed.

They don’t have to worry about fatalities associated with old vampire-irritating standbys: sunlight, wooden stakes, garlic. They don’t have to sleep in coffins or stalk around in swishy capes. They might not even need fangs. They do, however, have to brood about something.

Byzantium, Neil Jordan’s vampire-centric film, based on a play by screenwriter Moira Buffini, simultaneously adheres to the trendy rules covering new vampires while breaking new ground in the genre. Like their Twilight brethren, his undead characters are able to walk around in daylight (though without the accompanying sparkles that plague the Twilight vamps so much). They use this freedom to move about England — settling in rundown former “holiday towns”, as Jordan describes them in an interview included on the Blu-ray– and try to scrape together a basic living without drawing too much attention; this causes loneliness and the requisite brooding.

What makes Byzantium unique is that he’s not focusing on a solo male vampire, yearning for the love of a good human woman. His undead denizens are a mother/daughter team — though they look close enough in age to pass as sisters. Clara (Gemma Arterton) takes the role of protector and caretaker, shielding her daughter, Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), a perpetual teenager, from the unseemly details of the brothel she establishes to support them. Clara is the fighter in the pair, insisting on doing whatever it takes to keep them safe — which means maintaining total secrecy in isolation (violently, if necessary). Eleanor is the thinker, yearning for human connection and the ability to share her story, feeding only on those she believes are ready for death.

Eleanor writes the story of their existence over and over, she says in voiceover, but never shows them to anyone. Still, her narration gives insight into Clara’s origins, which are told in flashback. In this way, Jordan balances a period action/adventure movie about Clara’s route to vampirism with a modern-day psychodrama about Eleanor’s rebellion. The juxtaposition between the two opens up the movie in such a way that you’d never guess it was adapted from a play.

Jordan also moves beyond the stage’s confines by putting together some strikingly composed images: a black beetle crawling across Eleanor’s pale face, a line of rich red blood dripping across white fingers, neon carnival rides glowing against a dark night. If there’s one good thing about a vampires that aren’t sensitive to the sun, it’s that they can walk around in the light, so you can actually see all of the art direction — from painstaking period details of the past to the dingy nuances of the run-down hotel where the characters hole up in the present.

There are other inventive twists on the vampire story that Jordan is able to incorporate in a similarly visual way. In Byzantium, vampirism is not transmitted through blood. Someone can turn into a vampire only if they follow a map to a remote island, then climb through its subterranean tunnels to find the secret to immortality; if it works, a waterfall on the island’s exterior runs red with blood. Fangs, too, are jettisoned in favor of fingernails that grow razor-sharp and pointy when the vampire in question is aroused — another way that Jordan puts a feminine twist on a typically male monster story.

Beyond the images, it does seem like Jordan could’ve pushed the relationship between Clara and Eleanor further. Throughout much of the middle of the movie, they’re locked in a cycle of Eleanor trying to make connections with other people, and Clara destroying them to maintain their secrets. They are eventually freed from this routine, but possibly after one too many repetitions.

Whatever the criticism, Jordan makes a case for himself in an interview included on the Blu-ray’s only feature, which is an overlong series of Q&As with Jordan, nearly every major member of the cast, and a few producers. These have the feel of unedited raw footage, and would probably be more interesting at half of their length, especially given the amount of repetition in the questions posed to each person. Clara may fight the entire move to keep her story a secret, but, when you get behind-the-scenes, it seems no one can keep themselves from going on and on about the movie.

RATING 6 / 10