What is it with some aging vampires where they act like teenage girls with Facebook and Twitter accounts; they want to tell anyone willing to listen their entire life story. Remember Louis from Interview with the Vampire (1994)? Byzantium brings audiences the same premise with one of the undead yearning to tell her long story yet hanging her head in frustration because she knows nobody can understand.
Director Neil Jordan must have a deep interest in vampire autobiographies; he directed by Byzantium and Interview with the Vampire. These films have quite a few similarities: forbidden transformations from human to vampire, a somber/grey atmosphere, and a thirst for blood. There are numerous differences as well including rules involving sunlight and lack of coffins, but the most glaring difference of them all is Interview with the Vampire had a top-notch script and Byzantium does not.
Vampires are ripe characters for an effective story. You can jump back in time to any point in history, use any setting to put them in, and make them as introspective or bloodthirsty as you like. Writer Moira Buffini, who wrote the most recent Jane Eyre (2011) adaptation, chose to place our leading lady vampire duo in the most depressing place imaginable, the southeastern English coastline in the offseason. If you have ever been to Brighton or nearby Hastings, then you know there are a thousand other beach communities you would rather be at.
Clara (Gemma Arterton) and her daughter, Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), jump from town to town running from The Brotherhood, an ancient vampire order. Clara broke some sacred vampire laws so they are on the run. For a 220 year old, Clara really is not all that smart. In her first life, she was cruelly shoved into prostitution and seems to only know how to make a few pounds by working the streets; did she really not pick up a skill in the past couple hundred years? Eleanor, on the other hand, expertly plays piano, persistently scribbles her life story onto paper which she immediately crumples up and throws to the wind, and is an all-around very sullen 200 year old.
Eleanor is in the Louis role and Clara enjoys the more liberated Lestat life perspective. Eleanor is tired of being on the run and bursts at the seams to tell anyone about her vampire ways, which is a big no-no if you would like to remain immortal instead of having your head cut off. She meets a local boy, Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), who appears as unsteady physically as Eleanor is emotionally. There is a juicy backstory Jordan cuts to now and then which is a very welcome respite to escape from the present day drudgery. Early 19th century Britain was no picnic for the poor and especially for single, poor women. So much potential is sitting right there to be plucked up and molded into an interesting vampire drama/thriller, yet Byzantium remains in the here and now in a moldy hotel on a gray/cold, lifeless rock beach.
Jonny Lee Miller pops up as an extremely unlikeable fellow and about as far as you can get from his enjoyable Sherlock character in Elementary. Sam Riley, who starred in his own awful movie based in Brighton (Brighton Rock, 2010), is the film’s most interesting character as an intelligent vampire looking to set things right, but he is saddled with very limited screen time. Arterton is a pleasure to watch as the world’s most lusty vampire but her role is so confining and poorly written you can only watch her struggle in what should have been a spectacular role. Ronan is about as likeable as you remember her from Atonement (2007), which means you would not be particularly inclined to invite her to your next dinner party.
Byzantium is a case study to mourn the ‘what could have been’. There is so much delicious opportunity just lying by the side of the road and bypassed to focus on some more dreary prostitution subplots, stutter steps to tell a halting life story, and an awful conclusion at the world’s worst amusement fair. Please Neil Jordan, come back to us with another vampire tale to make up for this mess; we will forgive.
Directed by: Neil Jordan
Written by: Moira Buffini
Starring: Gemma Arterton, Saoirse Ronan, Caleb Landry Jones, Jonny Lee Miller, Sam Riley, Daniel Mays, Maria Doyle Kennedy