Vampires may be immortals whose lives span across centuries but ever since Twilight they have been recast as teenagers, the better to reflect the target audience for Stephenie Meyer’s sparkly suckfest. There have been films that kicked back against this toothless treatment including Jim Mickle’s excellent Stake Land which had feral vampires that were far more animal than human. Neil Jordan’s Byzantium takes a very different approach to Stake Land and despite being centred around a vampire dealing with the emotional turmoil of being a teenager, it is a far cry from Twilight.
The film concerns two women, Clara (Gemma Arterton) and her daughter Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan). They move from town to town, living on the edges of society. Clara works in the sex industry – sometimes a lap dancer, a prostitute or a madam – always working for cash and leaving no paper trail in her wake. Eleanor struggles with the isolation of their nomadic existence and longs to tell someone their secret – they are hundreds of years old and survive by drinking blood.
When they arrive in the decaying seaside town of Hastings, Clara meets Noel (Daniel Mays), a lonely punter who has inherited a rundown guest house called Byzantium from his late mother. Clara sees the chance to turn the former hotel into a brothel, while Eleanor befriends Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), a local boy who is quickly smitten by her. But Clara’s rules forbid telling their secret or getting emotionally attached to anyone.
Moira Buffini wrote Byzantium based on her own stage play and her script puts a distinctive spin on the vampire myth. Buffini based her vampires on Irish legends, which gives the whole film a very distinctive feel from more mainstream genre outings plus some stunning locations of wild, raw natural beauty. These women do not possess super-powers. They can’t fly, they are no stronger than anyone else, they can’t transform into bats and they are not allergic to sunlight. The story casts Clara and Eleanor as powerless vampires in the widest social sense. Clara is a prostitute and Eleanor is a teenage schoolgirl. They may be un-aging, but they are simultaneously vulnerable to the predations of anyone stronger and more powerful than they are – which in this instance means men, both human and otherwise.
The male cast members include Jonny Lee Miller as Ruthven, the absolute cad responsible for Clara’s fall from grace, plus Sam Riley and Uri Gavriel as two men looking for Clara with unfriendly intentions. Miller makes a splendid scoundrel. As the lovestruck Frank, Caleb Landry Jones has the awkward gangly manner of a teenager still growing into their own body. None of the male characters are as fully developed or as compelling as Clara and Eleanor, but then this is their story not that of the men.
Byzantium uses the vampire genre to explore how women survive in the face of a hostile patriarchy. Clara’s involvement in the sex trade is one of the most obvious examples, while the organisation pursuing her is The Brotherhood, just to drive the point home. Fortunately the script doesn’t labour over this theme so heavily as to become a lecture on feminist studies, but you don’t have to dig very hard to find the ideas at work.
Prior to Byzantium, I had only ever seen Gemma Arterton in Quantum Of Solace, in which she was essentially very glamorous window dressing, and in Tamara Drewe, which was far too fluffy for me. I thought she was exceptionally good here. The role demands a lot from her, but she delivers in every scene. Clara is passionate, stubborn and determined to survive using whatever limited means she has at her disposal. Every time they have to move, Clara tells Eleanor to let the past go and just leave it all behind, yet Clara is a woman defined by her past. It colours all her relationships and is constantly breathing down her neck, reminding her of how perilous her life is.
“I am sixteen forever,” says Eleanor, who has been stuck living with her mother for centuries. No wonder she’s going through a rebellious phase. Saoirse Ronan (how on earth do you pronounce her name?) is occasionally lumbered with overly portentous dialogue but she is intensely sympathetic as the teenager desperate to find her own place in the world.
The film has a very measured pace and viewers raised on a diet of Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart may struggle to engage with the sombre tone and unhurried direction. But Jordan’s film has substance, two excellent leads and a delightfully morally ambiguous ending.