Tribeca 2013: ‘Byzantium’ is an uneven tale of old-school vampires

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UK/Ireland, 2012
Written by Moira Buffini
Directed by Neil Jordan

At some point in my lifetime, Irish teenager Saoirse Ronan will be renowned as the best actress on the planet. It’s only a question of how long she’ll have to appear in movies like Neil Jordan’s Byzantium before it happens. The star of Atonement and Hanna just has an uncanny gift for what is needed in a scene, and how much of it she ought to deliver. Ronan is the brightest spot by far in Byzantium, opening this week at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, which isn’t a failure but has little to recommend it beyond her incredible performance.

Ronan and Gemma Arterton (who you may remember as Strawberry Fields in Quantum of Solace) play a team of vampires, Eleanor and Clara, who travel together across England. Food is plentiful for them, and thanks to the cloudy climate of the British Isles not even daylight is much of a danger; their only real fear is discovery by human society. Eventually, Eleanor finds a boy her own age (Caleb Landry Jones, a.k.a. Banshee from X-Men: First Class) and feels the need to reveal her secret to him no matter how dangerous it might be.

The presence of a teenage romance at this movie’s heart, one in which the vampire is desperate not to feed off of the human, might evoke the Twilight films at first. But Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, Interview With The Vampire) is playing a much older game, dating all the way back to Bram Stoker in some aspects. Eleanor is a Victorian at heart, raised from birth to believe in propriety and restraint, and her vampiric habits reflect this – she only feeds on the elderly and infirm. Indeed, even without the lengthy historical flashback in the middle of the movie, the brilliance of Ronan’s performance is that Eleanor seems to be living in the 21st Century and the 19th at the same time.

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Arterton receives a much more raw deal. On paper she should embody the baser instincts of the vampire – all of the sexual and animalistic urges associated with the act of drinking blood, representing all of that which the Victorians would have liked to repress. In practice, modern-day Clara is too … well, vampy, dolled up in excessive makeup and hot pants without enough of the menace underneath. It seems that all of the Gothic camp from Interview With The Vampire is crammed into one character here, and Arterton has to bear it all. It’s not even her fault; she seems to be executing exactly what was on the page, but the filmmakers’ plans for Clara were ill-advised.

Byzantium has a throwback feel that is easy to appreciate. There have been so many variations on the vampire tale recently, everything from Blade to Twilight, that it’s a unique and innovative thing for Jordan to deliver an old-school tale that feels like it might have come from Stoker’s pen. However, Byzantium also has a thriller subplot involving Clara, one which absolutely does not belong and which ultimately drags the picture down. It leads to a climax which feels not at all climactic, and a denouement which seems to be setting up sequels rather than leaving these characters in an appropriate place. It’s an ending which comes from a different movie than the one Ronan was acting in for the previous 80 minutes, a movie that is not nearly as good as Byzantium could have been.

-Mark Young

The Tribeca Film Festival runs April 17-28. Visit the official website for more information.

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