Film: Byzantium


Directed by Neil Jordan

Starring Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton

Byzantium film poster

I’ve loved Neil Jordan’s films since the Crying Game and the fascinating Company of Wolves. He has a lyrical quality in the way he structures the stories and the cinematography of the scenes, and he is adept at layering stories and characters, most especially (as he demonstrated with Company of Wolves years ago and again in Interview With the Vampire) when dealing with mythic and folkloric subject matter. I was a little worried about Byzantium as it had some very mixed reviews, some lavishing praise, others saying it fell badly short. On viewing it myself a few days ago I have to say my worries vanished and I was absolutely absorbed into this intriguing and different take on the vampire mythos.

Gemma Arterton’s Clara turns tricks and performs in lap dancing clubs to bring in money while staying off the grid, living a secretive life with Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), who, given the fact that Clara still appears very young, she passes off as her little sister, who she is the legal guardian of after their parents were killed. In fact the quiet and thoughtful Eleanor is her daughter, born under less than ideal circumstances and then raised in an orphanage some 200 years ago, while her mother paid for her board but was forced to keep her distance. After Clara’s vampirisation she returns to claim her daughter, the legacy of her mortal life, and for two centuries the pair have had to live a secret life, not just hiding their immortal, blood drinking nature from society but also from an unspecified threat, that Clara is clearly aware of but will not tell her daughter about.

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It’s clear that Clara is protecting her daughter from some group and at first we’re not sure who – vampire hunters? An organised team of other undead who object to their freelance lifestyle? But Clara, stuck in repeating the same routine – evade, hide, turn some sexual tricks to make money, move on, hide, repeat – doesn’t realise her daughter, eternally 16 years old, has matured within and is questioning why they live as they do, especially since she’s lacking any real history from Clara on why they are as they are. She repeatedly writes down her life story on paper, in beautiful copperplate handwriting, but not for anyone to read – symbolically she tears up the pages after she finishes and scatters them to the winds…

This brings us to one of the first kills and the modus operandi for the women, when a kindly, very elderly gent in the apartment block they are living in talks to Eleanor one day about the pages – he has picked some up, enough to start putting a little of her story together. He knows what she is and more than that, he welcomes her – he is old, alone, ready to move on. And Eleanor is only drawn to feed on those whose time is done, the old, the dying, the suicidal. To them she is not a blood sucking monster but an angel of mercy, and she speaks a benediction of peace to them as she takes them and lightens their passing. In one scene the horror of a vampire feeding on a helpless old victim in a hospital is transmuted as the woman looks at her and whispers, you came, my angel – she welcomes the release…

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Which is not to say they can’t kill for other reasons – Clara is perfectly prepared to kill, but in her case it tends to be evil people, such as an arrogant pimp in the seaside town they flee to (the world is a better place without you in it, she tells the surprised pimp as she overpowers him). Or to attack a mysterious pursuer (I won’t say any more on that for fear of spoilers). These are no innocents (in fact Eleanor makes no claim to be especially good), but they do have a moral code and despite their circumstances they are in many ways moral creatures, given their situation.

Of course eventually we find other vampires and it links back to how both women became immortals, an ancient society, a Brotherhood, which is not terribly keen on the idea of a woman joining when Clara is reborn, much less when she wants to make her daughter the same – women are forbidden to create, one brother intones. Just as the vampire is the inversion of natural life, here their immortal club is also inverse, the men are allowed to create new vampires (all men they deem to be of the right quality, like a perverse gentleman’s society) and women are forbidden – the power of birth, of the creation of new life, is here in the hands of men.

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The film is replete with references to some of the 19th century Gothic classic novels, and layered with symbols and many allusions to – and disruption of – gender expectations and roles. It’s a fascinating and spellbinding film, from the gritty, seedy underground life the women have to live to keep themselves hidden, on the edge of society forever to the flashbacks to both of their earlier lives and (eventually) their genesis as vampires (I won’t ruin it for you, suffice to say it is much more mythologically satisfying than the old being bitten and turned, and involves some beautifully composed and memorable shots). Saoirse’s performance in particular is exceptional – in the Lovely Bones (disappointing misfire of a film but she was good in it) and Hannah she’s showcased not only an especially refined gift for acting for such a young woman, she also has a wonderful, ineffable, otherworldly quality to her – like Cate Blanchett in Lord of the Rings you find it easy to take her as different because she radiates that quality quite naturally, and it is used to huge and sympathetic effect here as she questions her life, her immortality, the world around her that she can’t really be part of, and finally romance with a seriously ill, very sensitive young man, who is himself very different from most of society.

I could write screeds more on the symbols and myths invested into this film, the performances, the beautiful shots and the narrative structure which also draws you into this hidden world, but I think if I write any more I’ll risk spoiling some key scenes for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, so I’ll wrap up. Suffice to say for those who like something deeper, more folkloric and ¬†with more bit to it (sorry) than the dreadful modern Twilight teen-girl friendly film vampire tale this is it, deeply steeped in folklore (the transformation scenes owe much to Celtic culture and myth rather than Transylvanian counts) and Gothic lore but laced with the real world and gender issues, it’s intoxicating. As with Jordan’s superb Company of Wolves I know I am going to have to get this on DVD when it comes out so I can watch it again and again, because I know there will be elements I missed the first time round. And when I find a film I want to rewatch numerous times and still expect to find new moments and insights, well, that’s about as high a compliment to a film-maker as I can pay.