‘Byzantium’ is a feminist twist on the vampire genre

Vampire Gemma Arterton surveys her new digs in Neil Jordan's "Byzantium." Credit: Christopher Raphael/Parallel Films
Vampire Gemma Arterton surveys her new digs in Neil Jordan’s “Byzantium.”
Credit: Christopher Raphael/Parallel Films

‘Byzantium’
Director: Neil Jordan
Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

Irritating though it may be, one reason vampires are apparently permanently in is that, even moreso than zombies or werewolves, there appear to be countless angles worth exploring. Just when the genre seem finally exhausted, filmmakers Park Chan-wook (with “Thirst”), Tomas Alfredson (“Let the Right One In”) or Xan Cassavetes (“Kiss of the Damned”) find a new way in. Neil Jordan has twice tackled bloodsuckers, first two decades ago with the lush, pansexual “Interview With the Vampire,” and now with “Byzantium,” which only superficially resembles his earlier attempt, and then not by much.

Having focused on boys his first time, Jordan this time goes with girls. Based on a play by Moira Buffini, it focuses on a mother, Clara (Gemma Arterton), and her not that much younger daughter, Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan). They’ve survived going on two hundred years, mainly by constantly being on the move. It’s not just about evading mortals; they’re also wanted by a vampire society comprised of angry men, who don’t take kindly to their womanly independence. Curvy Clara makes a living as a prostitute and madam, and spends part of her time dispatching rapists and other abusive men. Eleanor, meanwhile, is far more sullen, confessing her secrets in diary entries she throws away while pining for a nice, similarly sensitive boy (Caleb Landry Jones). The loose plot finds the two on the run from old foes (including Sam Riley). Clara drags Eleanor to a coastal town, where the former guilts a nice mama’s boy with a newly dead mom (Daniel Mays) into letting her turn his tony manse into a brothel.

“Byzantium” spends more time getting inside Eleanor’s head than Clara’s. But the tone is, thankfully, more Eleanor: Bemused, plucky, not afraid to gorily decapitate a baddie. It’s a self-consciously offbeat genre entry, one of those, like Kathryn Bigelow’s “Near Dark,” that ostentatious about never uttering the word “vampire.” Constant flashbacks to their costume drama origins aren’t great for momentum, but “Byzantium” is consistently clever enough that that’s only marginally a problem. If “Interview With the Vampire” was overly heavy, “Byzantium” is light, even goofy, milking plenty out of the clash between old time mores and modern life. One chase scene winds up in a mall, Clara and her pursuer battling it out in a children’s moon bounce contraption. It’s twisty, occasionally bloody fun, and one that nimbly never lets Ronan’s killjoy permanent teen drag things into terminal seriousness.


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