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byzantium

If you think about it, actually being a vampire would be kind of a drag. You get to live forever but all of your friends and loved ones will be long dead, at some point, leaving you all alone (unless they’re also vampires, in which case, party on, Wayne!). You get to stay the same age forever, which would probably be okay if you were between 20-50 but would, presumably, suck if you were either a pre-teen or in your nineties. You’re pretty much constantly on the run, since normal folks probably don’t dig getting their blood drained as much as vamps dig draining it. There are also all of those codes of conduct to get through: like any secret society, there are leaders and followers…imagine keeping a middle-management job for thousands of years and then come complain about your 9-5 job. You’re also going to wind up old-fashioned and out-of-date, at some point: if you were cutting-edge in the 1700s, you’re gonna be a little passe in the 2010s. And, of course, there’s the whole “daylight turns you into ashes” thing: forget about those sunny afternoon picnics!

While these issues with vampirism have, presumably, existed since the very advent of the idea, too few films actually deal with this on any significant level: for the most part, vampires are either seen as blood-thirsty monsters or as tragic, romantic, Byronic figures. Leave it to acclaimed writer/director Neil Jordan, then, to help rectify the situation a little. Fans of vampire cinema will probably recall that Jordan was responsible for one of the more elegant, esteemed vampire films of the ’90s, Interview With the Vampire (1994), which briefly touched on the huge gap between those who embrace vampirism and those who are afflicted with it. After almost 20 years away from the fanged ones, Jordan has returned with another vampire adaptation, Byzantium (2012), based on Moira Buffini’s stage play “A Vampire Story.” While Interview was a lush, big-budget and star-packed “event picture,” Byzantium ends up being a much more elegiac, low-key and subtle, if no less beautiful, film. It’s a world of difference from Interview but, ultimately, I another masterpiece for the Irish auteur.

Byzantium deals with the life and times of young Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) and her mother, Clara (Gemma Arterton), who seems to be no more than a decade older than her daughter. As it turns out, both young women are actually centuries-old vampires, on the run from the patriarchal vampire Brotherhood and keeping as low a profile as they can in the modern era. This, of course, means a life spent as refugees, never getting too comfortable in any one spot, lest they blow their cover or run afoul of the omnipresent Brotherhood. Clara exists in the same manner that she did before being “turned,” which means she sells her body and exists on the blood from her unsuspecting “clients.” Eleanor, on the other hand, tries to exist in much the same way as any teenager might: she takes classes, strikes up friendships with young men and tries to stay on the good side of her temperamental mother.

Fortune seems to smile on the pair when they end up back at the small, sea-side village where Eleanor spent her pre-vampire days in an orphanage. While at her “day job,” Clara makes quite an impression on a lonely sad-sack of a guy, Noel (Daniel Mays), who invites Clara and Eleanor to come stay with him at the sprawling, dilapidated resort hotel known as Byzantium. Eleanor, for her part, strikes up a friendship with a pale, wan young wine-bar waiter named Frank (Caleb Landry Jones). As mother and daughter each pursue their relationships, for very different reasons, it seems as if the nomadic pair will finally be able to find some semblance of normalcy in their ageless lives. This, of course, is not to be: when Clara’s violent past comes crashing into their present, she must do everything she can to protect her and her daughter from the predatory, misogynistic Brotherhood. Will mother and daughter find “true love” or is the real onus of vampirism the eternal loneliness and isolation that these creatures must endure?

In many ways, Byzantium is a spiritual cousin to Tomas Alfredson’s exquisite Let the Right One In (2008), a compelling, beautiful and almost crushingly sad rumination on love, duty and the burdens of eternal life. The film looks and sounds absolutely gorgeous: the cinematography, courtesy of esteemed veteran Sean Bobbitt (Hunger (2008), Shame (2011), 12 Years a Slave (2013)), is consistently elegant, vibrant and immaculately composed, while the score, by frequent del Toro composer Javier Navarrete, is instrumental in establishing the mournful, elegiac tone.

Without some serious substance to back it up, however, Byzantium would still only be a beautiful, if empty, confection. Lucky for us, then, that the film ends up being another of Jordan’s jam-packed mini-epics. Truth be told, there’s so much going on in the film that it actually felt way too short at two hours: there are numerous elements, such as the extraordinarily detailed vampire backstory, that get something of short shrift in the film but that’s quite a nice problem to have…after all, how often do you walk out of a film wishing there were more rather than less? Byzantium features some very interesting notions on vampirism, not the least of which is the rather amazing manner in which vampires are “created.” While I’m loathe to spoil any viewer’s first introduction to the “turning,” suffice to say that it involves a supremely creepy shrine on a tiny, isolated island, blood-red waterfalls, bats and doppelgängers: it has to be one of the most unusual vampire origin stories I’ve ever seen and is so visually stunning that I found myself replaying the scenes multiple times. I don’t often have the tendency to “geek out” while watching films but Byzantium makes it patently impossible to not become fully invested in every aspect of the production, be it visually, thematically, or acting-wise.

Thematically, Byzantium deals with some pretty heavy subjects: the power struggle between men and women in a patriarchal society; the burden of revenge vs the higher calling of forgiveness; mother/daughter relationships; euthanasia of the elderly; the notion of women as “creators” vs men as “destroyers;” the impossible myth of true love; the way in which the time constantly informs the present; the intriguing idea of vampirism as cure for earthly illnessess…that’s quite a lot to digest in a mere two hours, especially when Jordan takes the time to develop each angle in as much detail as possible. In particular, I found myself utterly captivated by the power struggle between Clara, Darvell (Sam Riley) and Captain Ruthven (Jonny Lee Miller). Ironically enough, Clara main sin, as far as the Brotherhood is concerned, is the fact that she turned Eleanor into a vampire: women are not allowed to “create,” in the Brotherhood…only males are allowed this particular “honor.” Contrast this with the biological reality of women as the true “creators of life” and you get just a small taste of what the film is cooking up.

None of this would have the same impact, of course, if we didn’t become so invested in the characters. Luckily for Byzantium, the film is graced with a pretty exceptional cast. Ronan and Arterton are exquisite as the mother/daughter pair: Ronan’s ethereal beauty is so otherworldly that it’s pretty easy to buy her as an ageless, tormented creature, while Arterton makes Clara a completely three-dimensional character. Clara is not always the traditional “hero”: truth be told, she can frequently be an impossibly selfish, brutal, emotionless monster but she never stops being Eleanor’s mother, which gives the proceedings a rare poignancy. Jonny Lee Miller portrays the unbelievably slimy Capt. Ruthven as a bigger monster than any bloodsucker and Riley brings a quiet sense of elegance to the role of Darvell that’s as close to Byronic as the film really gets. These are not romantic characters, certainly nowhere close to the vampires in Interview, and the top-notch acting helps to sell this unconditionally.

Truth be told, Byzantium is an amazing film, the kind of beautifully made, deep experience that marks the very best cinematic experiences. There are very few filmmakers that combine languid beauty and gut-churning violence in the same way that Jordan does and Byzantium must certainly stand as a high-water mark in either instance: when the film is beautiful, it’s absolutely stunning (there are probably 300 or more “frameable”shots in the film) and when it’s brutal (beheadings are a pretty common occurrence), it absolutely kicks like a mule. Jordan knows that life is equal parts beauty and filth, however: this wouldn’t be nearly as honest without both.

As far as I’m concerned, Neil Jordan already had the kind of back-catalog that most filmmakers would give their right arm for: from The Company of Wolves (1984), Mona Lisa (1986), The Crying Game (1992), Interview with the Vampire (1996) and The Butcher Boy (1997) to Byzantium, Jordan has made a career out of elegant, difficult films. When his films have managed to break through and wedge themselves into the popular zeitgeist, as The Crying Game and Interview did, Jordan has proven that he can be just as indelible a force as Coppola, Scorsese or Spielberg. With Byzantium, Jordan may just have crafted his most exquisite film yet, which is no faint praise for such an artisan. It may have taken him a while to return to horror filmmaking but let’s hope that we don’t have to wait 20 years for the next one. Byzantium is the real deal and any fan or student of cinema, regardless of their interest in vampires, would do well to see this as soon as possible.

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