He’s probably not aware but I have an uneasy relationship with Neil Jordan. I like very much the neo-noir look of his films. You could almost call him an auteur if you’re into that sort of thing for the way in which there is a definite style going on. However I have always found myself, for reasons I find hard to explain, a bit less happy with the actual substance of his work. The look and sound strives for depth but what is being told doesn’t always deserve that reverence. And Byzantium, despite being very enjoyable, really isn’t going to help resolve that issue. Myself and Mr Jordan remain uneasy. Like I say, I bet he gives a damn.
Shot, magnificently, in Hastings and making full use of the burnt pier, fishing fleet and tacky promenade, Byzantium is a vampire flick. But it’s a good one in the sense that, whilst these folk can walk in daylight, chew garlic and look at crosses, we’re not into mawkish levels of Twilight or the ridiculous pomp of quasi-royal fawning. It’s also good in the sense that our vampire heroines are not simply being used as a prop for tedious metaphorical coming of age or millennial angst or … well, that sort of thing. I mean, there is a bit about coming of age, angst, feminist anger and familial despair but there are also proper vampires being vampirey. The humans don’t usually last long unless they’re paying for sex.
The central pairing of two-hundred year old undeaders are mother and daughter combo Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan, the latter trapped for ever in the body of 16 year old Eleanor Webb. She yearns to reveal her story and only ‘feeds’ on those who are ready to die. This part creating possibly the most tender and moving bloodsucking ever committed to celluloid. Eleanor’s mother Clara (Arterton) is less concerned with the tender things using her, erm, presence to carve a career as a pimp, prostitute, hustler and murderous defender. She was all these things in life too so it’s just carrying on the tradition.
There are a few different plot strands which weave in and out, linked by occasional voiceover from Eleanor and sometimes revealed through her ‘story’. The principal emotional connection is between Eleanor and, Frank, a boy at her school (please don’t stop reading here – it’s much better than that sounds) played with just the right level of awkwardness by Caleb Landry Jones. It is their potential coming together which causes the film to hurtle towards its blazing climax.
Throughout everything looks good. Kudos indeed for the way in which every set looks right and, stylistically, Jordan has got it pretty much perfect again. If you want to know how movies should use space and light you could do worse than start here. The performances from Arterton and Ronan are note-perfect. And yet …
I’ll leave the and yet. Byzantium is an excellent ride and it looks beautiful. Aspects of the ending don’t sit quite right with me but then I’m still bugged by how Time Bandits finished and I’d recommend that film to anyone. I found Byzantium as a freebie on Amazon Prime so don’t know how successful it’s been but if you haven’t yet found it I suggest you do: these vampires may emote but they do also bite.