If Graham Greene started to sketch out the idea for a vampire story on the back of a napkin but got bored with it and handed it off to a staff writer from “Eastenders” to finish, you’d probably end up with something a lot like “Byzantium”, Neil Jordan’s return to the Vampire genre.
Clara and Eleanor, a vampire mother and daughter have been on the run for two hundred years from The Brotherhood, a shadowy vampire sect who don’t permit women to become vampires and, if they do, certainly don’t allow them to create further vampires. Fleeing London after their secret is discovered and finding themselves homeless, Clara sets to work in the oldest and only profession she has ever known and meets Noel, a recently bereaved mummy’s boy who has inherited the Byzantium, a run-down hotel on the south coast of England. Seeing an opportunity to exploit Noel’s loneliness and gullibility, she quickly dominates the weak-willed Noel and transforms the hotel into a makeshift brothel. Meanwhile, Eleanor’s growing attraction to a local boy threatens to destroy the bond between mother and daughter which has lasted more than 200 years and Clara’s extreme approach to keeping their secret threatens to draw the attention of The Brotherhood straight to them.
This is a brooding, melancholy film saddled with an uneven cast and some poor story choices. Essentially we get two stories for the price of one: the story of Clara, and subsequently Eleanor’s transformation into vampires during the Napoleonic era and the present day struggle to stay hidden. In all, we see and get to understand too little about The Brotherhood who have a code they live by which determines what kind of people they can hunt and kill. The notion of a group of vampires as keepers of justice and retribution is intriguing and worth exploring but instead we get the story of Clara and Eleanor. Had this film swapped the A and B stories around, it probably would have turned out a lot better: the story of The Brotherhood told against the backdrop of them tracking down two renegade female vampires.
Gemma Arterton fails to convince as the ruthless elder vampire Clara, playing her more like a brassy, mouthy landlady from a downmarket Queen Vic than a skilled and stealthy centuries-old predator. Saoirse Ronan, on the other hand, is magnificent as the contemplative, quieter Eleanor and she does a great deal to lift this film from the doldrums and make it watchable. Caleb Landry Jones as Frank provides a quirky, soulful counterpart to Eleanor’s moribund worldview and gives her a reason to believe there may be a better life away from her single-minded mother. Sam Riley and Thure Lindhardt are suitably creepy as Brotherhood agents Darvell and Werner while Jonny Lee Miller provides a memorable cameo in the Napoleonic flashbacks as The Captain.
Neil Jordan deserves some credit for attempting to bring a touch of the gothic back to the vampire genre and “Byzantium” is a handsome looking film. The town of Hastings, where much of Byzantium was shot, brings more emotion and depth to the film than Gemma Arterton does and the exterior locations are used to great effect, especially scenes of a waterfall running crimson with blood. There’s an attempt to capture the feel of the old Hammer films but the mundane, urban elements of the plot undermine the whole endeavour.
It doesn’t give the vampire film the infusion of new blood it desperately needs, but at least it lets enough claret flow to wash away a bit more of the idea that vampires are needy, mumbling pasty-faced Emos who sparkle in sunlight.