By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 13, 2013)
Stop! Or my Mom will bite: Arterton and Ronan share quality time.
In my 2010 review of The Wolfman, I pondered why people continue to be so fascinated by human “monster” characters like vampires and werewolves in literature and film:
I suppose it’s something to do with those primal impulses that we all (well, most of us-thank the Goddess) keep safely locked in our lizard brain. Both of these “monsters” are predatory in nature, but with some significant differences. With vampires, it’s the psycho-sexual subtext; always on the hunt for someone to penetrate with those (Canines? Molars? I’m not a dentist). There is a certain amount of seduction (or foreplay, if you will) involved as well. But once consummated, it’s off to the next victim (no rest for the anemic).
And there’s certainly no rest for world-weary single vampire mom Clara (Gemma Arterton) and her teenage vampire daughter Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan). In fact, both women at the center of Neil Jordan’s neo-gothic fantasy Byzantium are looking pretty bone-tired. You would too, if you were 200+ years old.
Having to pack up and move to a new town every few months can also be quite draining; Clara’s “job” as a streetwalker, while providing a handy conduit to lure her victims, is not the ideal career choice for anyone to wants to keep a low profile. Also not helping is Mom’s unreserved tendency to leave Grand Guignol crime scenes in her wake for the local constabulary to contemplate. In stark contrast, the more demure and contemplative Eleanor employs a relatively compassionate feeding method (be advised that it’s no less unpleasant to watch).
Eleanor’s sensitivity hints at a poetic soul; telegraphed from the opening scene where a discarded page from her private journal flutters from a high window and is picked up and read by a passing stranger. Eleanor’s wistful voice over assures us that she knows that we know that she realizes the havoc she and her mother have been wreaking for two centuries is evil and wrong. She yearns to tell someone her story; she’s a serial killer that wants to get caught.
Mother and daughter settle in to a new coastal town (the windswept Hastings locale lends itself well to the sense of melancholy and foreboding). Clara, ever the opportunist, finds a pushover-a lonely, kindly bachelor named Noel (Daniel Mays) who has inherited a run-down hotel called The Byzantium. Clara soon converts the vintage inn into a brothel (giving unsuspecting Noel a stay of execution). In the meantime, Eleanor’s ever growing compulsion to share her dark family secrets comes to the fore when she meets a young man (Caleb Landry Jones) and begins to fall in love.
The director, best-known for character-driven noirs (Angel, Mona Lisa, The Crying Game) and emotionally shattering dramas (The Butcher Boy, The End of the Affair) is actually no stranger to the supernatural, beginning with his 1984 sophomore effort (and one of my Jordan favorites) The Company of Wolves. He graduated from werewolves to vampires a decade later with one of his bigger box office successes, Interview with the Vampire (although critics were more divided). He even gave horror comedy a shot in his uncharacteristically limp 1988 offering High Spirits. And his 2009 drama Ondine weaved in a few elements from Irish fairy tales.
Even discounting the fact that I am not particularly enamored with post-modern vampire flicks to begin with, Byzantium still left me feeling ambivalent. On the plus side, Jordan wrests compelling performances from his cast (consistently one of this strongest suits). Arterton exudes a volatile intensity and earthy sexiness that’s hard to ignore, and Ronan’s offbeat moon-faced loveliness and expressive, incandescent eyes give her tragic character an appropriately haunted, ethereal quality.
The problem, I think may be with Moira Buffini’s uneven script (adapted from her own play). While it remained focused on the mother-daughter dynamic, it held my attention. But whenever it veered into the somewhat incoherent backstory involving a cabal of male vampires who have been shadowing the women since the early 19th Century, they lost me. Then there’s the raging river o’ blood sequence (c’mon…how many times must we rip off The Shining?!) and the Bat Cave of Destiny (my name for it)…at any rate, it all becomes needlessly busy and muddled. Maybe I’m ol’skool, but just give me Bela Lugosi in a chintz cape, and I’ll bite.