Beautiful Byzantium is the Right One to Let In
Director Neil Jordan isn’t necessarily known for horror, although he helmed both Company of Wolves (1984) and Interview with the Vampire (1994). He’s perhaps best recognized as the Academy Award-nominated director of The Crying Game (1992), for which he won the Oscar for Best Screenplay. After a 19-year absence from the genre, he returns with what is my favorite of his films, Byzantium, which may also be the most beautiful vampire movie you’ll ever see.
From sweeping Irish landscapes to seedy carnival sideshows, cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (Shame, The Place Beyond the Pines) creates scenes that, if nothing else were happening in them, you could sit and watch for days. Even in a close-up of eternally 16-year old Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), her blue eyes light the screen. Coupled with a lovely piano score by Javier Navarette (Pan’s Labyrinth), I can’t emphasize enough how gorgeous Byzantium is to watch.
However, it isn’t the least bit pretentious. The story clips along at a nice pace and is filled with mystery and wonder. The screenplay by Moira Buffini (Tamara Drewe, Jane Eyre) is apparently based on a 2008 play she wrote called, “A Vampire Story”. Other than the rich dialogue, Byzantium feels nothing like a stage adaptation. In fact, after seeing the movie, I’d love to know how it compares to the source material. (You know, War Horse was originally a play, also.)
As well-produced as Byzantium is, it truly is a horrifying vampire story. However, no fangs are bared. Instead, the two women afflicted with the curse grow a wicked thumbnail to savagely stab their victims in the jugular at feeding time. Eleanor, though, gently pokes the wrists of her elderly victims, preferring to believe she’s helping them transition to a better life, always stating “peace be with you” as she draws their last breaths from them.
Her sister/mother/guardian, Clara (Gemma Arterton), has no such charitable intent. She kills simply to survive. It’s the result of her handiwork that causes the two women to constantly wander. She uses sex as well as otherworldly ways to get what she needs; besides blood, you also need money to survive. Collecting women off the street to open a brothel in an old hotel, she recreates the atmosphere in which she grew up decades ago and still haunts her today.
Byzantium is one of those movies where bits and pieces of vampire lore are used and discarded at the writer’s discretion. For example, Clara and Eleanor must be invited inside; however, they can walk freely in daylight. It is their origin as vampires that is the most unique, though. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a movie where vampires are created in this way. Of course, I’m not going to reveal it here, but the choice of the victims in the matter is what I find most intriguing.
Byzantium may remind you of another vampire film, Let the Right One In (or its English remake, Let Me In); however, it is more satisfying for me. There’s a real tenderness to Eleanor’s grief of having to live forever and being unable to tell anyone her secret. She longs to make a meaningful connection. Does she take the risk to share it with Frank (Caleb Landry Jones) or is she so exhausted that she’s willing to let the entire world find out?
As much as I feel like I’ve revealed about Byzantium, believe me, there’s more. (Who are the people following Clara and Eleanor in the wake of their carnage?) Plus, Jonny Lee Miller is in it, which is always a good thing. Byzantium may be that unique movie that successfully crosses over between art film and horror. Don’t let its credentials frighten you away. The scary thing would be for you not to give it a try. I come as close as I dare to making a guarantee on this one.