Any film by director Neil Jordan is well worth a look. Throughout his career he has made the fantastical all too real (Company of Wolves in particular) and this, his latest slice of gritty realism liberally laced with the magical, is no exception.
Byzantium is a run-down seaside hotel, shabby and going to seed, but for vampire mother and daughter, Clara and Eleanor (Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan), it is just the bolthole they need to escape a sinister brotherhood of vampires ruthlessly tracking them down in order to kill them. For Clara should never have been a vampire in the first place; having stolen a map 200 years previously, detailing the whereabouts of the island on which vampires are made, she then compounded the ‘sin’ of turning herself into a vampire by turning her daughter as well.
Through the decades the pair have been desperately trying to elude their pursuers, Clara eking out a living by working as a prostitute, or more recently a lap dancer. But they can’t hide at Byzantium forever, besides which young Eleanor is lonely and morally troubled by her need to kill in order to live. While Clara’s needs and desires are earthy and robust, Eleanor is far more ethereal, only feeding on those who are ready to die and wishing for a better life.
The film moves effortlessly back and forwards through time, detailing the brutal rape of both mother and daughter by the same man (Jonny Lee Miller in repellent mode), and their eternal flight from danger gives proceedings a nice sense of urgency, counterpoised by scenes of sweet stillness when Eleanor meets a young waiter (Caleb Landry Jones) who seems to echo her own loneliness. The acting throughout is excellent, but what makes the film stand out from most of the vampire genre is the richly detailed script by Moira Buffini (based on her own play) that gives these vampires purpose and complexity, and Neil Jordan’s use of the seaside town almost as a character in its own right, one that definitely takes on a life of its own after dark.
It’s great to see a film that isn’t a mainstream romance or comedy where both the main protagonists are female, wilful, headstrong and mistresses of their own destiny.