Neil Jordan extracts the gothic from the mundane as he returns to the genre that made his name nearly 10 years ago, in new Vampire thriller Byzantium. Set in the sleepy seaside town of Newhaven, Byzantium sees Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) fleeing the mysterious brethren, a sinister group of male vampires who refuse in accept the existence of females in their midst.
In a refreshing shake up to the genre Clara and Eleanor seem to lack the all consuming desire for blood which defines their predecessors, and instead of fangs these modern vampires kill through the use of a extendable ‘claw’ on their thumb. These changes are a welcome reboot to what has become an almost cheesy genre; it is a vampire film so we can’t escape the spectre of Twilight. Gone are the Mormon values, replaced with good old-fashioned seductive vampires who use their sex appeal to lure and kill.
However, in contrast to the old Hammer Horror ‘vampy’ vamps, we see two different types of vampire at play here – Arterton playing the more traditionally seductive vamp, while Ronan’s character, strongly influenced by her upbringing in a Christian orphanage, has more ‘moral’ out look on her way of life. Shown not in the form of the so-called vegetarian vampires of Twilight but in a kind of Gothic euthanasia, only taking the old who consent and are ready to die. This moral aspect to her personality gives the film a depth and morality that differentiates it from its more gory counterparts.
Visually Byzantium is brilliant, playing the mundane against the gothic; the humdrum background to the story only serves to emphasise the sporadic gore – giving it much more potency than blood-fests such as Saw. When we do witness violence, which Jordan in no way shies away from, it is much more affecting for the audience and shakes the sympathetic view we have built up of the characters.
The story that plays out around the fact that they are vampires is more than engaging, the slow build up and reveal of plot points is enthralling. In the end the fact that they are vampires is almost incidental – certainly giving a darker edge to the story, but the characters and performances are more than deep enough to carry the film. Ronan is brilliant, as usual; playing a child with the weight of a lifetime on her shoulders is almost second nature to her at this point but she does it so well and with such innocence and grace that you can’t help but fall a little bit in love with her. Arterton gives the performance of her career as she struggles to maintain her relationship with her daughter in the darkest of situations.
Byzantium is a fantastic character study quite apart from the horror aspects, something that cannot always be said of films of this type. It does have a few of the traditional plot holes we can expect from a horror, but the strength of performance and depth of character is good enough to allow you to forgive a few holes. The slow build up of the plot is particularly British, and marks Byzantium out as something fairly special in the vampire genre.
If your looking for fangs and scares, this isn’t for you; but if your content to watch as a tragic yet endearing human story unfold in front of you, then the story of Clara and Eleanor Webb will entertain you from start to finish.
By Charlotte Keeys, Jackanory Reviews follow her on Twitter: @jackanoryreview.