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Director: Neil Jordan
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, Caleb Landry Jones
Length: 118 min
Label: MPI (IFC Films)
Release Date: Oct 29th, 2013
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Audio: English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Irish director Neil Jordan (2009’s Ondine) dips back into vampire lore after 1994’s Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles, a handsome, seductively rendered adaptation of Anne Rice’s novel with starry A-list hunks and little, curly-headed Kirsten Dunst. Based on screenwriter Moira Buffini’s play “A Vampire Story,” Byzantium is a savory transfusion of fresh, warm blood into the subgenre that became a bit toothless once the goofy, soapy Twilight franchise set the world on fire. It not only retains the erotic charge that used to be present in vampirism but actually makes it possible to take seriously the tragic lives of immortals. A complete vampiress reinvention or not, the film’s feminist point-of-view and empowerment slant certainly serve it quite well.
Technically, no vampire is really interviewed in Byzantium, but Eleanor Webb (Saoirse Ronan) has a story to tell, and she wants a mortal to read her truthful journal. A 200-year-old soul in a 16-year-old’s body, she can confide in the elderly before putting one of them to rest with the skin-slitting talon of her thumb and then feeding on their plasma. Her mother, Clara (Gemma Arterton), supports them both by working as a prostitute. When a member of the all-male Brotherhood comes looking for them both, Clara and Eleanor flee the scene to start over in a seaside town. There, the eldest meets an awkward, trusting sugar daddy (Daniel Mays) who’s the heir of an old hotel called Byzantium. Clara sees it as a way to set up shop, finding women off the streets and turning the building into a brothel. Meanwhile, Eleanor begins to relate to a mortal named Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), a loner who’s battling cancer, and can’t help the urge to be honest about herself with him. As Clara warns Eleanor, those with knowledge will die. Soaked in atmosphere and punctuated by bursts of blood (and, at some point, rivers of blood), Byzantium has the storytelling sweep of a grand novel and the mood of a half-Gothic, half-neon-colored horror tale. Written by Buffini, the film is a then-and-now story, unfolding in layers and crossing time periods to tell Clara’s 1800s-set story through Eleanor’s story. Both female characters are just trying to survive, independently and interdependently. It’s about time the ethereal Saoirse Ronan be cast as a vampire. She’s quietly compelling, as always, playing Eleanor as human as possible with more vulnerabilities from being a teenage girl. Vamping it up in tight, black leather but not in performance, Gemma Arterton is bewitching as Clara, a bosomy specimen whose mission in life is “to punish those who prey on the weak and to curb the power of men.” Caleb Landry Jones subtly pours emotion into his icy face (see Antiviral for the diametric opposite) as Frank, and there’s menacing support from Jonny Lee Miller, Sam Riley, and Thure Lindhardt. Delectably lensed by Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave, The Place Beyond the Pines), the film is never not striking to look at, from the outpouring of bats from a shoreside cave, to the aforesaid rivers of flowing blood, and the image of a bloodied handkerchief being seen as a voracious object. The film isn’t without a sense of humor (in one scene Hammer Film’s 1966 Christopher Lee starrer Dracula: Prince of Darkness plays on TV), and it’s not too stringent about setting the traditional rules. These vamps only enter mortal premises if they’re invited in, but they don’t have fangs, they don’t seem to be affected by the daylight, and they even cast reflections in mirrors.
Sean Bobbitt’s lush cinematography comes beautifully to life in IFC Films’ blu-ray transfer. Shot with an Arri Alexa Plus camera, detail is striking, even in shadows where there is no black crush. Colors are very-well saturated (as in the waterfall of blood scene), but look perfectly natural. The overall image looks crisp and pleasing.
Likewise, the DTS-HD 5.1 sound track is vivid and full. Dialog is easy to understand and the film’s atmospheric sound design makes a proper impact, especially when heard with a good surround system.
The extras are standard and not that impressive, with the obligatory trailer and interviews from the leading ladies and director Neil Jordan. However, there is a more interesting 20-minute Q&A at FrightFest Glasgow that sheds a little insight into how the project came into fruition.
Just as some of us probably thought vampires could never come back from being sullen models caught in love triangles, Byzantium is one impressively stylish, even thoughtful tale from the cobwebby crypt. Certain to be lost in the shuffle of mainstream releases, this underseen jewel would be perfect for the Halloween drought.