Two decades ago, Irish director Neil Jordan got into the supernatural bloodsucker game by sharpening the teeth of Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and a then very young Kirsten Dunst for the moody and stylized "Interview with the Vampire." He returns to the genre with "Byzantium," a less satisfying, more convoluted take on characters who are members of the living dead.
Two decades ago, Irish director Neil Jordan got into the supernatural bloodsucker game by sharpening the teeth of Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and a then very young Kirsten Dunst for the moody and stylized “Interview with the Vampire.” He returns to the genre with “Byzantium,” a less satisfying, more convoluted take on characters who are members of the living dead.
Making non-linear use of flashbacks with its contemporary story, we get a tale of a strained mother-daughter relationship. Mom is Clara (the alluring Gemma Arterton, who played Strawberry Fields in “Quantum of Solace”). Daughter is 16-year-old Eleanor (the bland Saoirse Ronan, who has so far only been effective in “Hanna”).
As a fan of classic horror, I will admit that having a mom-daughter vampire duet, who must continually travel from town to town, leaving a trail of blood-drained bodies behind them, is a pretty cool idea. But the script by Moira Buffini (who wrote the terrific 2011 “Jane Eyre” adaptation), based on her own play, “A Vampire Story,” never takes off, never rises above an uncomfortable flatness.
Many small pieces of the story give it some promise: Clara wears a self-assured look, makes her living as a lap-dancing prostitute, likes to chat, and can be very sympathetic to sad, lonely men. She also happens to be a talented practitioner of decapitation. She aggressively hunts down victims when thirst gets to her. Eleanor is a solitude-loving pianist (Ronan does a nice job actually playing a difficult piece of Beethoven) who walks around with a glum, world-weary look. She manages to find already spilled blood for sustenance.
They’ve been at this lifestyle for a long time, for a couple of centuries, and pieces of their tragic lives are revealed in those flashbacks: One explains why Eleanor is doomed to always think about her past; another tells of how Clara was forced into sexual servitude. Most of these sequences add layers onto the film’s main storyline, when what it really needs is some streamlining.
The title of the film refers to the once-fancy, now gone-to-seed hotel where Clara and Eleanor find themselves living, and where Clara is seriously considering settling down to open up a brothel. The scenes taking place there feature a rich visual atmosphere. (The same cannot be said about a cascading waterfall of blood that is truly tacky.) On an interesting note, the hotel allows the film to offer up some standard vampire lore: Clara and Eleanor must stand outside of the place until they’re actually invited to come in by the owner. Oddly, other equally important pieces of vampire business are ignored. For instance, Clara and Eleanor can and do walk around outdoors in the daylight hours, suffering no ill effects.
It’s safe to say that the film’s central motif revolves around how to live with a terrible secret, and at the same time explore the give and take, up and down relationship that mothers and daughters deal with in real life. But there’s far too much mood and not nearly enough substance. And with complications building up right to the end, the film just gets too involved for its own good, especially when, well into it, there’s a plot switch that requires viewers to forget a great deal of what they’ve learned about certain characters, then start anew.
Suffice it to say that if you’re looking for a gory action film about neck-biting creatures, this isn’t for you. This is a slow-moving, dreary art-house vampire film.
Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.
Written by Moira Buffini; directed by Neil Jordan
With Gemma Arterton, Saoirse Ronan, Daniel Mays, Caleb Landry Jones, Sam Riley