Two female vampires holed up in a seaside town hotel; for certain savvy viewers, this distilled description of Byzantium’s premise may bring to mind Harry Kümel’s strange and sensual film Daughters of Darkness from 1971. Neil Jordan’s return to both horror and the bloodsucking is a much different beast, though.
Two centuries old soucouyants, Clara (Gemma Arterton) and her daughter Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), are on the run from men of an ancient vampiric order, though Eleanor has never been made aware of others of their kind. Clara, stuck in rotating cycles of prostitution or burlesque employment since her pre-immortal days, works for money to help them get by, feeding on those unlikely to be missed; Eleanor, meanwhile, preys on elderly people who seem willing and ready to pass on. The two are able to manoeuvre during daylight, and they don’t have fangs but instead use a retractable claw to penetrate a victim’s skin. Circumstances force them to hide out in a small coastal town, where Eleanor finally acts upon desires for connection and Clara opportunely exploits a grieving man (Daniel Mays) and his late mother’s hotel, setting up a brothel there. As one would expect, the pursuing parties are able to track them, but the greater threat to Clara is her daughter’s wish to be free of her mother and their lifestyle; to be able to tell someone of what she is, “the one story she cannot tell.”
Much of Byzantium unfolds in flashbacks, showing the pair’s origins that involve two aristocrats (Jonny Lee Miller and Sam Riley). The film’s mythology is more heavily inspired by Irish folklore than by traditional notions of vampire fiction. Transformation here doesn’t come through being a victim of blood sucking, but instead through making a pilgrimage to a sacred location with a trial by fire, where only successful entrants into a mysterious cave can be turned. The film’s mythology is perhaps its greatest strength, and allows for a few instances of sinister imagery worthy of Jordan’s past fantastical work like The Company of Wolves.
Byzantium makes some great use of the Hastings location where much of it was filmed, but the defining shot is elsewhere with a series of blood waterfalls on the island where the worthy are turned. It’s a beautiful, unnerving sequence, but also representative of the film’s central problem in that it’s one of many images Jordan keeps returning to. After a while, Byzantium tends to reiterate the same points over and over again with few new developments, particularly with the Eleanor character, occasionally throwing in extra, superfluous-feeling subplots to the pile of padding. What is initially a work of an intriguing atmosphere – at least once the characters get to the coastal town – starts to become a frustratingly languid affair.
With her striking features and past great work, Ronan would seem an ideal fit for Eleanor. While much mileage is gained from shots of her haunting eyes, the character and the actress’ performance feel a bit one-note and generic, an impression enforced by the film’s repetitive nature. Eleanor’s “love interest” of sorts is surprisingly a more interesting character, a haemophiliac compellingly played by Caleb Landry Jones in a strange, perpetually pained performance. Arterton gets the better material to work with of the vampire pair, capably handling villainous notes far removed from the bland, chirpy characters or monotone exposition machines her career to date has often involved.
To perhaps make up for the lack of blood pumping the film’s padding and pacing prohibit, Byzantium’s final act is heavy on frantic actions and races against time, though the resolution to the conflict with the order feels somewhat anti-climactic. The conclusion all feels messily handled, and includes an attempt at pitch-black comedy that’s distractingly out of place with the film’s tone, but the very final scene, despite relying on a certain piece of imagery yet again, is quite terrific. Byzantium does not have enough material to sustain its runtime, but the good that is present within it suggests an effective horror mood piece that could have been, should certain aspects have been excised.
Byzantium played as part of FrightFest’s strand at the Glasgow Film Festival.