Thursday, March 13, 2014

Byzantium (2012) - FilmReview

Article author: Alwyn Ash

"My story can never be told. I write it over and over, wherever we find shelter. I write of what I cannot speak: the truth. I write all I know of it, then I throw that pages to the wind. Maybe the birds can read it."

I have been a fan of Saoirse Ronan's work for about two years, after seeing the Irish actress in 2009 fantasy "The Lovely Bones". Since then I have enjoyed further performances from her in "Hanna" (2011) and "The Host" (2013), and so "Byzantium" is one of those movies that excites. Directed by Neil Jordan and written by Moira Buffini, the tale also stars Gemma Arterton and Jonny Lee Miller. It is a British-Irish affair focusing on mother and daughter Clara (Arterton) and Eleanor (Ronan), both vampires who have accompanied time through the ages. Based on the stage play "A Vampire Story" (Buffini's creation), this feature explores vampires for the modern age, no longer grotesque fanged parasites but people with a burdened past, and feelings. Eleanor has a story to tell, one too impossible to share, and so she writes it, never likely to free herself of the hardship.

There has been a surge in vampire offerings of late, in both film and print; there are likely to be some people who are tired of this phenomenon. However, I always welcome fresh takes on the vampire legend, and "Byzantium" does just that. Forget fangs, these vampires pierce their victims with a sharp fingernail, which can extend and retract in the same way as their toothed-cousins. It is clear that Eleanor is just a young girl (well, perhaps in body but not in mind) who longs for some kind of normality. Her companion, Clara, is the more dangerous of the two, a predator who's morals leaked away the day she was first inducted into prostitution, during the Napoleonic Wars - we get to see both their backstories. It is clear that Clara is determined to keep their whereabouts a secret at all times, from who we discover further into the story. And she has reason to be vigilant. Arterton's character is a survivor: selfish, cold-hearted... though her protectiveness over Eleanor redeems any negative qualities she possesses.

Irish filmmaker Jordan revisits the world of vampirism after his successful adaptation of Anne Rice's "Interview with the Vampire", released in 1994 and starring Tom Cruise as the vampire Lestat de Lioncourt. His collaberation with English-born Producer Stephen Woolley is legendary, both having worked on "Byzantium" and "Interview with the Vampire", along with other works including "Mona Lisa" (1986), "High Spirits" (1988), "The Crying Game" (1992) and "Michael Collins" (1996). It is a union that works well.

The introduction of an island that gives birth to vampires, and the guardians who protect its secrets, is intriguing, a step away from the more familiar making of a vampire process. Eleanor's own transformation is, of course, Clara's doing, but in a bid to save the young girl's life from venereal disease following rape at the hands of a vengeful Captain Ruthven (Jonny Lee Miller). This is what ultimately leads the two of them to go on the run: breaking the code of the vampire brethren for a second time - the first being Clara's own unsanctioned transformation! The island is sacred, and their disregard for ancient protocol a disgrace to all who uphold the legacy. Such a crime is punishable by death.

Actor Daniel Mays ("Made in Dagenham", "Saddam's Tribe", "Mrs Biggs") plays the role of Noel, owner of the once thriving but now forgotten Byzantium Hotel. Of course, being a loner, he is the perfect candidate for Clara's plans, who seduces him before moving in and converting the hotel into a brothel. Eleanor, in the meantime, befriends Frank (portrayed by American Caleb Landry Jones), a young waiter who she encounters at a restaurant where she plays a piano; they establish an instant bond. As the story progresses we learn of Frank's own personal destiny and feel for the two love birds as fate steps in to keep them apart, including Clara's inability to trust any outsider for fear of discovery. This paranoia also includes Noel, dare he become a threat in any way to the continued survival of these two timeless creatures. You do feel Clara's darkness, and know only too well that, unlike her daughter, she is a natural cold-blooded killer - the thought that she will only take out "pimps" and "johns" (clients of prostitutes) doesn't totally convince...

Having read a little about "Byzantium", I am surprised that gaining financial support can be difficult for a film whose leads are female, as gender inequality still plays a major role in decision-making. When asked, even Arterton agrees, "Yes, it's true. Very much so, unless you get someone properly famous in the lead role. We are talking very, very famous." Renowned actress or not, the film industry needs to do more to let some great cinematic experiences through: it is by no means a mistake that Sigourney Weaver, then relatively unknown, had been cast in "Alien" (1979) to influence an otherwise male-dominated genre - and Ronan's own performance in "Hanna" is nothing short of brilliant - proof that it is a script, and not female actors, that should be judged for finance backing.

If there are any negatives about "Byzantium" then it is the male characters of the piece - neither are established properly, or their relationships with either Clara or Eleanor explored efficiently. Perhaps, if Jordan had produced a love story, and examined the true destructiveness of a Human's relationship with a vampire... In the end, this is a tale of mother and daughter, lone travelers through time, restless for a place to remain without constant vigilance. For the latter their existence is a burden, secrets that must be shared but can never be, yearning for some kind of connection with anyone other than her mother, whose dominance makes any "normality" seem impossible.

What this feature shares with its predecessor "Interview With A Vampire" are the beautifully-shot flashback sequences for the two protagonists, as "Byzantium" steps back 200 years. If I am to be honest, this is where the movie works best. Though not a regular tale of vampirism, this fresh approach does take a look at what it is to be immortal Humans on the run, constantly unable to put down roots. Without the "vampire" tag, they are serial killers. And even with it, they are still more Human than any vampire in cinematic history...

Purchase Byzantium from the Store:
DVD - Blu-ray - Running time: 118 minutes