At The Picture Show
Communion for the undead
With 'Byzantium,' Neil Jordan and Moira Buffini craft a tale of female strength and autonomy in the form of a haunting religious allegory
Director: Neil Jordan
Screenplay: Moira Buffini, based on her play A Vampire Story
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, Caleb Landry Jones, Daniel Mays, Sam Riley, Jonny Lee Miller, Tom Hollander and Uri Gavriel
Rated R / 1 hour, 58 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)
The passage from human to vampire is sacrosanct, an intimate and spiritual ceremony, a gift passed from one to another. It is the conclusion of a personal journey, both figurative and literal; across empty sands you travel, up a steep, rocky cliff you climb, until finally you enter an isolated cave as a mortal, and leave immortal. You bathe in the towering waterfall cascading down the mountain as its water turns a deep red, a literal baptism by blood.
The vampirism in Byzantium is of a deeply religious sort, an extended metaphor that permeates every aspect of the film. In the background there is a priest-like order of vampires – an ancient, secret society that governs the undead's collective existence. No women are allowed in the order, of course; in fact, many women who become vampires do so against their will and at a young age, at the hands of powerful men. It is against the rules for females to convert others.
For this reason, Clara (Gemma Arterton) and her daughter Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) are on the run, and have been for two centuries dating back to the Napoleonic Wars, during which time Clara was first transformed by a handsome but odious military captain (Jonny Lee Miller), and first became pregnant, and finally broke the sacred rules of her kind by changing her daughter into a vampire. It is now the present day and the two have been hiding in plain sight ever since. After being discovered in central London (where Clara was working as a stripper) by someone in the order, the two flee to a barren seaside town and find refuge in the Byzantium Hotel, property of a lonely thirtysomething man, Noel (Daniel Mays), who is about to get a lot more than he bargained for.
Working from a script by Moira Buffini based on her own play, A Vampire Story, director Neil Jordan deftly weaves together the various separate pieces of the film's narrative. As Clara supports herself and her daughter by converting the hotel into a brothel, Eleanor becomes increasingly frustrated by her lack of control over her own life (she may be 200+ years old, but she's still treated like a child), and strikes up a kinship with a bashful and awkward waiter named Frank (Caleb Landry Jones, quickly establishing himself as one of the best young actors on the planet) while catching the attention of a local teacher (Tom Hollander) who detects a conspicuous ring of truth to Eleanor's "fictional" stories about her life as a vampire.
Meanwhile, a seemingly kind but inscrutable member of the order, Darvell (Sam Riley), is investigating an ongoing series of mysterious deaths and disappearances, and seems to be right on Clara's trail. Through flashbacks we see that the two have met before.
It's a lot to balance, but Jordan pieces things together in the manner of a dreamlike, timeless odyssey, filled with surreal moments of beauty and confusion. There's a fantastic wide shot of an empty beach where Clara is viciously, but serenely, emptying a man of his life, the slowly panning camerawork mirroring the great, evocative opening shot of Jordan's The Crying Game. There are moments of ethereal power throughout Byzantium, lending the tale a mystical, yet foreboding quality.
As the protective mother and as a woman who has relied on her body and her wits for two centuries, Arterton is seductive and authoritative in equal measure; and Ronan is exceptional as always. (She's always imbued her characters with a maturity and boldness beyond their years, and in this case, for a character years beyond her looks, that trait holds particular relevance.) Together the two make for a fascinating dynamic, especially coming from Jordan. His career has been peppered with great female characters, but so often they're deeply enigmatic, external figures – exotic and sometimes harsh mysteries to his male protagonists, as in The Crying Game, Mona Lisa and Ondine. (Some, of course, have bigger secrets than others.)
But here, these two strong, brilliantly performed women carry the entire story. It's especially effective given the film's religious flavor, and the deeply patriarchal vampire society at the heart of it. The men are in charge of the sacred rituals, the rules, the governance, even the procreation. The timelessness - endlessness - of their existence places them in a sort of stasis; fundamentally, time is no threat to them. But their communal values have finally run into conflict with social and cultural progress, like so many religious societies past and present.
As for Clara and Eleanor . . . well, they've been in control of their own destiny for 200 years now, completely disembodied from the power structure of their people. Their story feels at once triumphant and tenuous. Jordan bathes the film in deeply Catholic imagery (his films have often been characterized by Catholic themes and characters), from the blood-red waterfall, to the vampires' priest-like wardrobe, to the careful positioning of stained glass windows in two key juxtaposed scenes, to the ritualism and formal reverence with which the film handles and stages the reality of passing from one type of being into another.
In general, vampire sagas tend to touch on the contrasting ideas of passage and stasis, and that contrast is pronounced beautifully in Byzantium. An ageless teenage girl still feeling the pangs of lust and the urge of rebellion, an old woman perpetually stuck in the role of an adolescent. A young man, just entering adulthood, striking a grand bargain for everlasting permanence. The passing of time measured by the sustenance of the same persistent beliefs and customs. Without even appearing to be, Byzantium is provocative and perceptive, its religious allegory, if not thematically groundbreaking, at least viscerally fearless. Vampire tales come in all shapes; this one is as elegiac as it is empowering.
Read more by Chris Bellamy