A gorgeously-photographed, full-bodied vamp tale from Interview with the Vampire director Neil Jordan, Byzantium looks and feels so good that it overcomes some basic storytelling flaws. In an age of watered-down mass media vampirism, here’s a film that’s not afraid to pull things back to the bloody, sexy genre roots, and have a damn good time doing so.
Most of the bloody and the sexy comes in the form of Gemma Arterton, who stars as Clara, a 200-year-old vampire working the streets of contemporary London as a prostitute. You’d think that a couple centuries would have afforded her some more desirable employment and accumulated wealth, but this gives the film an excuse to feature the actress in some revealing attire.
Arterton has been pretty hot stuff since playing a Bond girl in Quantum of Solace – she hunted witches earlier this year in Hansel & Gretel, and seduced Justin Timberlake in Runner Runner – but she’s never been as stunning as she is in Byzantium. The sight of Arterton in fishnet stockings and a tight corset, breasts heaving out and skin drenched in blood, is something that’ll keep you awake at night.
She’s covered in blood after decapitating a pursuer with razor wire, a gory early-film moment that provides an unsettling reminder that this isn’t another Twilight movie. We don’t yet know who the pursuer is, or was, but he’s enough to force Clara to high-tail it out of the city with her younger ‘sister’ Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) in tow.
Eleanor is a rather perplexing character: she looks and acts like a teenager, but she’s actually hundreds of years old. I mean, you think she’d have learned a thing or two in all that time (come to think of it, Clara doesn’t seem to have learned much, either). The events of the film mostly result from her undying need to tell others her story; of course, telling people you’re a vampire is going to raise a few eyebrows.
A teen romance between Eleanor and the odd, sickly Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), is one of the story’s weaker aspects; you wonder if this same exact scenario has played out between Eleanor and other teenage boys over the years. In any event, after five Twilight films, we’ve seen enough of this stuff; the only interesting development here is the revelation that Frank is a hemophiliac.
Oddly, the backstory here is a lot more engaging. In juicy little bits slowly doled out throughout the movie, Eleanor narrates the tale of how she and Clara became vampires, which includes a pair of generals in the Napoleonic Wars (played by Sam Riley and Johnny Lee Miller), a secret society of vampires, and a mysterious island where the waterfalls memorably run red.
These period scenes look fantastic – as does the rest of the film, which makes excellent use of the coastal village setting: crashing waves at the shore, neon signs in the city, with colorful amusement park asides. Byzantium was shot by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, who also filmed Steve McQueen’s Hunger and Shame (and 2013 Oscar frontrunner 12 Years a Slave, out in Prague in January). There have been a lot of good-looking vampire films over the years, but this is one of the best.
Byzantium was written by Moira Buffini, who adapted her own play; the story here, however, isn’t the film’s strongest suit. Thankfully, there’s a lot of gorgeous imagery up on the screen to maintain our interest, and a haunting, melancholic vibe that reminds us that being a vampire may not be all it’s cracked up to be.