I personally find director Neil Jordan (Mona Lisa, The Crying Game, Company of Wolves) a bit hit-or-miss as a storyteller, but the fine eye he brings to the director’s chair covers a myriad of sins for my money. I heard about this film on the grapevine, and decided to see it on strength of word-of-mouth plus, of course, my familiarity with the cast (Gemma Arturton and Saoirse Ronan in lead roles) and the director.
I’m glad I took the time.
The first thing to dispose of is the notion that Byzantium is a horror film. It is many things, but it is not a horror film. It is a coming of age film, which is a fascinating idea since Saoirse Ronan’s apparent-age sixteen character (Eleanor Webb) is actually two hundred and six years old, and has spent most of her centuries under the care of her mother Clara (Arturton.)
It is also a romance, of sorts, with both Clara and Eleanor finding suitable partners by the end of the film. However, this element of classic romance is slightly at odds with one of the more important and powerful aspects of the film: the depiction of the fugitive life led by two women trying to remain independent in a male-dominated world over a period of two hundred years.
This aspect really supplies the major theme of the film. Arturton is a sex worker, and moves easily from one man to the next, taking advantage where she can find it. As a vampire and whore of two hundred years experience, predation seems to come easily to Arturton, and yet she and her daughter remain perpetually on the fringes, in the shadows, ready to move on or flee at a moment’s notice.
The conflict between the two characters supplies much of the drive of the film. Eleanor, raised in an orphanage, is deeply moral, desperately lonely, and powerfully unhappy with the life she is forced to lead. She writes the story of her life over and over again, throwing away the pages as she does so — and it is this story of her ‘creation’ into the world of vampirism which provides a kind of counterplot, a series of flashbacks which set against the developing story of the two women in the modern world.
It isn’t an easy film to summarise, which speaks very well of it in my opinion. I found both tales engaging: the Regency-era story of Clara and Eleanor’s transition into vampirehood, and the troubles arising therefrom, as well as the modern tale of Clara and Eleanor on the move, entering yet another town, Eleanor desperately seeking some kind of life, some human contact beyond her mother and her victims.
The commentary on the roles allotted to women in society, and on sexual politics and the power-games arising from them pervades the film. While the end is certainly satisfying and the romantic fulfillment of both female leads is properly set up and carried off, it did feel slightly forced. Likely I’d have been happier with a somewhat sharper and more downbeat ending — but then, I’m like that. Happy endings make me itch.
Beyond these things, the film is rather splendid. It looks good. Arturton is in fine form as the sexualised and predatory Clara, while Saoirse Ronan projects loneliness and vulnerability while remaining believable as a two-hundred-year-old teenage bloodsucker. The soundtrack is evocative and effective without being obtrusive. The imagery, sets, costume and photography are all first rate.
Don’t go into this if you want to sit on the edge of your seat, gnawing your fingernails. Don’t pick up this film if you’re expecting blood-splashed 3D gore-O-rama. Even Amy Baggins, the most horror-phobic of our cinema crowd only grabbed my arm once or twice, and she admitted afterwards it was “purely precautionary”. Byzantium isn’t really a horror film, despite the nature of the main characters.
On the other hand, if you’re up for a very well paced, character-driven, beautifully filmed piece about time and love and growth and sex and gender and death — in short, if you’re interested in seeing Neil Jordan near his best, Byzantium will amply repay you.