I can’t say that I didn’t know what to expect with Byzantium, it was more that I had already formed expectations without even realizing it. I’d heard the film, which is currently showing at the Tribeca Film Festival, was about vampires and my mind started thinking Twilight without me even realizing it. When I got to the theater and within ten minutes saw a lap dance gone gorily wrong followed by a head getting severed off with cheese wire, I knew that I wasn’t in Forks anymore.
Byzantium is about vampires and plenty of movies before it have been about vampires. But for the past few years Twilight has been so everywhere, followed by countless similar movies, books, and TV shows, that these ideas of what a vampire should be seep into your consciousness. You forget that a vampire film could be, and that many have been, much different. (For one, Byzantium director Neil Jordan‘s previous trip into vampirism, Interview With The Vampire.) Yes, the vampires in Byzantium live forever and drink blood, but that’s about where the comparisons end. Byzantium is more thriller than fantasy with a captivating storyline that jumps around from present to 200 years in the past and keeps you anxiously waiting for answers all along.
The film centers around two vampire sisters, Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) and Clara (Gemma Arterton) who have survived since the 1800s through their separate, distinct ways of collecting human blood and making money. Clara prefers working as a hooker and preying on the people she sees as evil while Eleanor has gentler methods. The bulk of Byzantium takes place in a small coastal town where the women end up after the cheese wire beheading incident. Clara starts a whorehouse, as she has done several times in her 200 plus years, and Eleanor befriends a boy her age– sixteen, the age she’s stuck with forever– named Frank (Caleb Landry Jones). Eleanor and Frank don’t fall in love or start confessing secrets right away and their relationship is much more interesting to watch because of it. It was also cool that Eleanor and Clara weren’t that worried about seeming weird. They weren’t running around screaming “We’re vampires!” but they had a comfort that would come with having done this for two centuries. Usually supernatural creatures are obsessed with seeming normal in fear that they’ll get found out, but this more comfortable approach really makes a lot more sense.
Saoirse Ronan does a great job as Eleanor, making apparent the internal conflict a girl would have after holding in her huge vampire secret for 200 years. I’d only seen Saoirse in Atonement before this and thought she was amazing so I was interested to see how she would perform as an adult actor. After hearing about The Host, I was worried, but Byzantium put my fear to rest. I was also really impressed with Gemma Arterton who I’d previously only seen as a Bond Girl in Quantum of Solace. You definitely don’t root for Clara the entire film, but she remains extremely charismatic throughout which is just what the character needed.
I wasn’t sure where Byzantium was going when it started, but the story quickly took off and I stayed interested as I watched the plot unfold. There’s twists, some of which may have been easy to predict if the movie hadn’t been so fast paced — and that’s a good thing. Byzantium dishes out new information before giving you a chance to try and figure out where the next turn is going to be, so I didn’t get much of that “Duh! I knew that was going to happen” feeling. The film is gory, for sure, and I had to cover my eyes at parts but even still, I felt fully immersed in this world for two hours and that’s the whole point of seeing a movie. Byzantium isn’t going to make you ponder life’s big questions and won’t leave you with “What does it all mean?!” thoughts, but it’s an energetic film that is enjoyable even for those that aren’t big fans of fantasy and the supernatural. That is, as long as you can put up with all the blood.
(Photo: StudioCanal via IMDB.com)