What’s most surprising about Neil Jordan’s third straight horror is that it is less the dreamy fantasy of A Company of Wolves or on the same slick scale of Interview with a Vampire and more like his low-key thrillers Angel and Mona Lisa. It has their gritty realism and strong character driven stories, using the vampire myth as a hook to tell an intelligent, solid story.
Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan are the vampires hiding out in a small seaside town after causing bloody mayhem in the inner city. What grabs you straight away is that this is not the elaborate and exotically decedent vampire lifestyle of the super-rich Lestat in Interview with a Vampire, but rather the lives of two working class vampires who, down the centuries have never moved up the economic ladder and escaped their original social background. They’ve lived in the slums of Georgian England and the vast council blocks of contemporary London. Even now when they escape to the seaside, it’s to the run-down coastal town of Hastings, full of junkies, prostitutes and crappy hotels.
This is the only life Gemma Arterton’s character, Clara, knows. Through bleakly shot flashbacks we see how, before she became a vampire, she was forced into prostitution. Afterwards she uses this sexuality to help her and Ronan’s Eleanor survive through the many lives immortality brings. The theme of prostitution is something the director has turned to many times. In Mona Lisa Simone uses her relationship with Bob Hoskins’ George to track down her missing friend, here Clara not only earns money to help Eleanor but uses her position to lure various nefarious men into a place of isolation so she can kill them. This is as much in revenge for having her own early life exploited and destroyed by men, as it is a way acting almost as a Nosferatu-esque superhero – defeating evil pimps to protect other vulnerable women.
Everyone who’s ever seen anything she’s been in knows that Saoirse Ronan is an exceptional young actress, with a fierce inner intelligence and an apparent sadness that can make just about any film ten times better (except The Host, no one could save that) and she’s just as good here. There has been far, far too much teen vampire romances of late, as we all know, but just because she meets a young sickly fella here don’t think this is going anywhere near Twilight territory. The love story is written, directed and acted with sincerity and realism as indeed, is the rest of the film. The flashbacks have a rough and dirty feel to them, which fits in nicely with the sordid seaside resort of the modern sections. Even the method of vampire attack dispenses with the usual fangs thing and has a strangely natural feel to it. Okay, there’s nothing natural about tearing someone’s throat open with your thumbnail, but I like it anyway. Only the scenes set on the mysterious island with too many bats has more of a classic vampire feel and they work just fine (apart from some dodgy bat effects).
So Ronan is great of course, but I think a lot of people dismiss Arterton as a pretty Bond girl and that is a mistake as anyone who saw her heart breaking performance in Tess of the D’Urbervilles could tell you. In the same way her character Clara uses her sexuality to control men, Arterton uses hers to magnetise the audience: she is beautiful, but confident enough to give Clara a real sense of being a fighter in a male dominated world, using her physical assets as much as she uses the mental ones to help her and Eleanor to survive. However, she also manages to add an extra facet by injecting Clara with genuine vulnerability and weakness as her fear of losing Eleanor is the very thing that drives a wedge between the two women.
Their relationship is destined for conflict, Clara eternally older than Eleanor, always trying to be the older sister/mother even though ultimately neither of them are young, even if they look it. They are both several hundred years old and Eleanor is wiser and more optimistic than Clara. Clara has become bitter and desperate in her endeavour to protect Eleanor, and because of their differences their partnership is ultimately doomed, one way or another. Byzantium is about the breakdown of the relationship from whatever is was, into something else. In many ways it is like all relationships one has within families: the dynamic of the older sibling or parent, always acting like the superior person, until they realise that the younger one no longer holds them up on a pedestal and in fact, may have come to resent them. At this point they have to come to terms with who they are as adults, or risk losing each other forever. This is the core of Byzantium’s tale: a character driven story… but with vampires, lots of flowing blood and Arterton slicing, tearing and severing male scum to death. Enjoy!