Byzantium isn’t going to be for everyone. Its pace is slow with not a lot of action. There’s some gore but not a lot. That leaves plenty of space for character development and cinematography that lingers on a rundown seaside landscape.
The two main characters, Clara and Eleanor, are working class, female blood drinking, immortal creatures scraping a living from crime on the edges of society. Several reviews I’ve read get hung up on calling them Vampires and then go on about how these creatures while blood drinking they don’t have fangs, a problem with mirrors or sunlight. Really this says more about how much genre material the reviewers have been exposed to than the film. Had it appeared in the early 70s I wonder if they would have felt the need to point out:
- Clara (Gemma Arterton) frequently does the sexy Vampire in corset thing – but that’s probably more to do with her scraping a living as a lap dancer and prostitute than some sort of Vampiric urge.
- At no point do they wear cloaks in the modern day – although Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) does wear a hoodie but she is a 200 year old teenager.
Also unlike the usual stereotypical vampires Clara and Eleanor aren’t super powerful, super rich, hyper intelligent Moriartyish creatures of the night living in mansions guarded by a horde of well armed mercenaries. They both have an addiction to drink human blood. Having fled from one threat they start leaving a trail of corpses around their new home pretty much straigh away.
They are hunted by the powerful aristocratic brotherhood – first as Napoleonic soldiers (who put down an Irish rebellion) and later detectives who clearly operate above the law. A man who the Brotherhood recruited forced one character into prostitution. They exclude women from their order. Times move on but the same people are still oppressed and the oppressors have just changed their uniforms. I’m sure there will be some fascinating feminist and Marxist interpretations of the story.
There is a strong thread of British Social Realism running through the veins of Byzantium. Action moves from a rundown council estate to a seedy lap dancing club through a shopping arcade and then onto to a decaying seaside town. The action moves back and forth between now and Napoleonic England. Byzantium itself turns out not to be an exotic phase in the lives of the creatures but a rundown hotel that has seen far better days.
There is an excellent cast – I usually try and at least mention the performances I enjoyed so here goes: Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, Barry Cassin, Daniel Mays, Sam Riley, Jonny Lee Miller, Uri Gavriel, Sam Riley, Caleb Landry Jones, Tom Hollander and Maria Doyle Kennedy all contribute.
The cinematography is beautiful capturing the decay of a small seaside town.
The sound track could have been the usual dull throw away affair of current dance music. Instead we get the repeated use of the Coventry Carol – highly symbolic in terms of the films story given the lyrics represent a mother’s lament for her doomed child after Herod ordered the Massacre of the Innocents.
My suspicion is that Byzantium will gain a cult following of people who like it for what it is and not for what they wanted it to be.