BYZANTIUM – The Review
With vampires being such a part of pop culture (with the recently concluded movie series based on the Twilight books) it’s hard to believe that INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE, the film based on Anne Rice’s novel, is almost twenty years old. This was quite a departure for director Neil Jordan in 1994 after winning acclaim for dark, gritty thrillers like THE CRYING GAME and MONA LISA. But now he’s back in similar territory with BYZANTIUM, based on a play. In a twist, Jordan’s new film concerns two women who share the same secret as they travel about feeding on the living, much as Cruise and Pitt did in the earlier film. Will this more intimate work also take a bite out of the box office?
As the film opens we’re introduced to the lonely sixteen year-old Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) as she commits her thoughts to paper. She shares a modest apartment with her older sister Clara (Gemma Arterton) who earns money for them by dancing at a local gentleman’s club (a strip bar). Just as she’s being fired from this job, a man from her and Eleanor’s past tracks her down. Quickly the two woman torch their home and flee into the night. They hitchhike and soon wake up on the outskirts of a quiet coastal town. That night Clara turns tricks at the run-down carnival so they can rent a new flat. One customer, Noel (Daniel Mays), breaks down and tells Clara that his mother just died and he’s let the family business, a small resort, go to seed. This gives her an idea. She and Eleanor will live there while renting rooms to the downtrodden prostitutes of the town. Soon Eleanor strikes up a friendship with a sickly young man working nearby as a retirement home waiter named Frank (Caleb Landry Jones). For some reason she believes that this village was her home many, many years ago. Eleanor wants to share her past with Frank without Clara knowing. Meanwhile two detectives are hot on the trail of the two after picking through their scorched former home. Will these women have to go on the run once more?
Much of the film is the quiet study of these two connected women and the actresses are more than up to the task of carrying us through this story. Ronan’s Eleanor is the less showy role, but she brings a quiet power to her scenes of longing and loneliness. We see the danger in her, but like Clara we still are compelled to protect her from the world. This is brought out even more when she finally reaches out to Frank. Arterton’s Clara is the more flamboyant role with her revealing outfits and swift deadly attacks that arise from her devotion to Eleanor. But there’s a sadness to her also since she’s forever trapped in various aspects of the sex trade and must keep her emotional distance from all but Eleanor. This may be the role that breaks Arterton out of the “eye candy” hero’s gal roles. Jones as Frank seems unlikely desirable, but Eleanor bonds with this fragile, broken spirit who longs for normalcy. Mays as the clueless, sad-eyed Noel is very compelling as the little schlub pulled down into Clara’s newest plan. Special mention should be made of the two men in Clara’s past. Sam Riley is excellent as the kind Darvell while Jonny Lee Miller (yes, Sherlock Holmes of TV’s “Elementary”) is spectacularly evil as the cruel, twisted Captain Ruthven who sends Clara on her path of torment.
Director Jordan and screenwriter Moira Buffini (adapting her play) have twisted several aspects of the vampire mythos. Sunlight has no effect on the women, as does garlic or religious symbols. There’s no transforming into bats or wolves either. The most striking change may be the elimination of the extended fangs. When they feed their thumbnail protrudes and becomes a claw that enables them to pierce the victim’s skin (usually the neck or wrist). We also get an insight into the vampire origins. No curses, but instead it begins in a dark cavern on an empty black-rocked island. The feeding habits of the two women are quite different. While both must have fresh blood, they must wait for the right circumstances. Eleanor is the angel of death who grants sweet release to the aged and infirm while Clara is the avenging angel who feasts on those who prey and exploit the weak. The true secret of their relationship is slowly revealed through short flashback scenes intercut through the modern story. There’s no golden glow of nostalgia in these glimpses of the past. The woman both suffer horrific abuse and degradation along the way. And similar to the Dunst character in the Anne Rice film, Eleanor must deal with having the appearance of a young person while actually being many times her outward age. Jordan captures the night-time mood of danger along with the monotony of the small dying town. This gives the sudden bursts of violence even more impact. Jordan has given us a very well-crafted original take on the vamps on the run story. It would be worth your time to check into the BYZANTIUM.
4 Out of 5
BYZANTIUM screens exclusively in the St. Louis area at Landmark’s Tivoli Theatre