I bought a ticket in the Irish Film Institute early in April and showed up to what I didn’t realise was the premiere of Byzantium, not only was there to be a Q & A with Neil Jordan afterwards but also dollop of the cream of the Irish Film Industry were in attendance, I spotted Sinead Cusack, Jeremy Irons and Jim Sheridan. I received such a fright at this that for a moment I felt like the blood had been drained from my body, but that could wait til later.
Neil Jordan is never more than two films away from the territory of dark Fairy Tales, young women on the cusp of adulthood flanked by weak men and all with a highly charged sexual tone. With Byzantium he is firmly back in familiar ground but this time with a difference.
Jordan himself admitted when he agreed to do the project that, to him, the subject of Vampires was the story’s least attractive quality. This may seem strange coming from the man who directed Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt in Interview With A Vampire but he explained that recently (and cleverly without actually mentioning the Twilight Saga) the genre had become, using his own word, ‘cuddly’. He decided to do away with fangs, ghoulish transformations and the aversion to daylight and has made an intense, brooding and compelling film which at once deals with the struggle of immortality and mortality itself.
We are introduced to two very different sisters. A contemplative and withdrawn Eleanor (the increasingly wonderful Saoirse Ronan) while Clara (Gemma Arterton) is sexually charged and sociable, with one thing in common, they both leave corpses in their wake and are on the run from something. When they find a sleepy seaside town, a willing partner, Noel (Daniel Mays) and his disused dated and dusty Bed & Breakfast, they feel they have landed on their feet. But their secretive past is about to catch up with them.
Ronan is perfect as the inwardly tormented and angst ridden eternal 16 year old, Eleanor, locked into a puberty from which she can never escape. But this isn’t a slick coming of age movie but rather a like a coming of ages transformation as her external lust for blood wages an intense war with her internal solid moral code. Jordan gives us food for thought as he touches on an interesting reflection of euthanasia vs. immortality.
Arterton’s Clara uses her sexuality like people use cotton wool, discarding men as easily as wiping blood from a scratch. While the sisters are poles apart as actors as well as characters, they naturally spar off each other like they have been doing so for an eternity. Yet Clara would and does kill to protect Eleanor with a passion beyond that of a sibling.
From the first couple of scenes it is clear that they cannot escape whatever past they are running from because of their lust for blood. Both characters are at the same time sympathetic and dangerous and we are quickly drawn to their side.
Caleb Landry Jones gives a touching and brittle performance as the sensitive Frank who weaknesses awaken more conflict within Eleanor. While Daniel Mays is perfect as the sensitive and slightly witless Noel providing what little light relief there is in the film.
The pace switches from engrossingly slow to suddenly violent while the tone is sombre, there is blood, death, tears, revelations, a final battle and more blood.