(Neil Jordan, 2013)
Neil Jordan makes films about the supernatural that specialise in atmosphere and eerie subtleties instead of shocks or sustained terror. This seems to be a good thing; there are more than enough horror films being made at the moment loaded with long passages of tension punctuated by sudden frights, just as there are plenty of gory shockers filled with blood and violence. But nobody else makes the kinds of films Jordan makes - visually lovely, often quite complex in their consideration of their themes.
Byzantium features both blood and violence, and plenty of each. It tells the story of Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), a 200 year old mother-daughter team of vampires, constantly moving from dingy British town to dingy British town, fleeing the pursuing clutches of a cabal of male vampires led by Darvall (Sam Riley). When the cabal gets uncomfortably close to catching them, they find themselves in a fading seaside resort, staying in an old hotel named Byzantium with Noah (Daniel Mays). Eleanor is chafing against their lifestyle and struggling with the burden of her memories, and her life becomes more emotional when she meets Frank (Caleb Landry Jones). Meanwhile, both women need to feed on blood regularly, and the mysterious "Brotherhood" is closing in...
The strange thing about Jordan's approach is that it makes for "horror" films that aren't remotely frightening. But then that doesn't appear to be his intention. He makes these films feel like fairytales, playing up the mythic elements and emphasising the power of the archetypes he is dealing with.
In Byzantium he plays against some audience expectations. His vampires don't fear sunlight or sleep in coffins. But they do need an invitation inside to enter a residence. While Eleanor only kills elderly people who are "ready", Clara kills the powerful who prey upon the weak. They hitchhike and Clara works as a lapdancer and prostitute to earn money, while Eleanor, eternally 16 years old, goes to school. Many of these elements and twists on the traditional mythology are familiar from the recent surge of vampire films, and Byzantium's script, adapted by Moira Buffini from her own play, never really elevates any of them or says anything new. It does contain several of the motifs and ideas Jordan has addressed before in his career, but this story is just a little too convoluted and stretched to work as well as his best work does.
It tries to include not only an angst-ridden teen romance suggestive of Twilight and Let the Right One In but detailed flashbacks to the Georgian period when both women became vampires reminiscent of Jordan's own Interview With the Vampire. All of this is overlaid with a literary voiceover by Eleanor, who repeatedly writes their story then throws away the pages. The seaside setting is a reminder of Jordan's little-seen The Miracle.
The most interesting sequences here are the ones investigating the Irish origins of the "ancient Gods" the Brotherhood worship, referencing the neamh mairmh of Irish folklore, and involving an Island off the Irish coast where there are so many birds they almost blot out the sun, and rivers of blood signal the transformation of a character from human to undead. The scene where Riley's Darvall and his friend and Captain (Jonny Lee Miller) travel there is almost Lovecraftian in its mix of awe and mystery.
Byzantium also contains a fascinating feminist reading of the genre - these women defy the brotherhood and are hunted purely because they broke a rule. In response, Clara uses her sexuality to survive, and she is the most energetic and active figure in the narrative.
Jordan has an attractive style - classical but arty, based on strong compositions and a sensible amount of cutting - and he can conjure atmosphere as well as anybody working today. He is helped immeasurably by the fine cinematography of Sean Bobbit to ensure that this film vividly suggests the textures and varying tones of the down-at-heel resort town in the present day and the same place in the Georgian era. The colours are rich and soft throughout, the lighting crepuscular.
And yet the whole thing never quite gels or hangs together; despite all these positives it works only fitfully. Jordan is a distinctive and capable enough filmmaker to make all of his work worth seeing, but there seems to be an undeniable shortfall between Byzantium and some of his earlier, better films.
The strong cast here help make it a pleasant, involving experience all the way through. Yet it always feels as if it could have been much more.