I didn’t see this when it came out at the cinema earlier in the year but remember middling reviews for it – it’s currently at 61% on Rotten Tomatoes – with reviewers highlighting the lack of scariness, but also commending it for not being a usual vampire film. However, not knowing much about it I thought I’d give it a go and I was strangely taken in.
Gemma Arterton, who I last saw marching about in leather and firing stakes like bullets in Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, is still marching about in leather but this time she’s a 200 year old vampire called Clara on the run with her vampire daughter Eleanor, played by Saoirse Ronan. Tom Hollander, who was in the fantastic Hanna with Ronan also turns up in this as a college teacher, and Johnny Lee Miller staggers in and out as a whoring, thieving officer in the British army in Clara’s youth.
Clara and Eleanor are constantly on the move, and this time get washed up on the shingle beach of a dying English coastal town – full of retirement homes, drug addict prostitutes and desolate concrete boulevards. Byzantium is the old hotel they end up in, which Clara quickly turns into a brothel to make money, but Eleanor – forever protected by Clara and eternally 16 years old – lives a half life. Unable to settle down and unable to tell anybody her real story, she struggles to define herself and resorts to writing her story down on paper and throwing it into the wind for somebody, somewhere to read.
These vampires do not sink their fangs into their victims – instead they have this strange extendable thumbnail, which they stab into their victims’ necks to feed. Clara feeds on the powerful men who have done others wrong, whilst Eleanor is a merciful angel of death, bringing peace to those in pain. Everything comes to a head however, when their past catches up with them.
I say that I was strangely taken in, and I think that’s because there are three separate strands to the film, each with a different feel. We have Eleanor’s aimless drifting and scribbling, telling us her story in voice over, and her budding relationship with a young waiter she meets, then we have the harder world of Clara who uses her body to get by and slaughters those who get in her way, and then we have the flashbacks to 200 years previously where we find out how they both became vampires. For me the flashback bits didn’t really work as well as they did in Interview With The Vampire, which Neil Jordan also directed, and the iffy CGI of spiralling birds and blood red waterfalls on the mysterious island which can only be found with a certain map didn’t quite match up with the more dreamy quality of Eleanor’s limbo.
I liked the contrast of Clara and Eleanor – one hard and vengeful and the other kinder and yearning for something more, but a deeper focus on how human they felt they were and what purpose they felt they had would have been more interesting for me. There is blood sucking in it, and lots of other blood, but I like that it went off on its own route a little where the vampirism wasn’t just what they were – they don’t seem particularly hampered by it in any way though you would think that after 200 years they would have learned how to get rid of a body rather than just leaving it on a beach. You only get a flash of hunger for blood occasionally, and for me this was more a symbol of Eleanor longing for intimacy with somebody else and sharing her story with them, whereas Clara uses it as a punishment.
Yes, it wasn’t perfect by a long way, but I thought it was interesting and in some parts touching, but the heavy-handed chasing of the two women by the Brotherhood who consider them to be abominations and Clara’s murdering of men left, right and centre thins out the more sensitive aspects. I was intrigued by the method of how one becomes a vampire – they enter a circular stone shrine on the mysterious island and are seemingly killed by themselves. An allegory of having to master yourself if you are to achieve what you want to achieve perhaps?