Over the last few years, we’ve really seen movies (as well as television) try to tell a vampire story in all different sorts of ways, to varying degrees of success. Academy award winning filmmaker Neil Jordan is actually taking his second stab (no pun intended) at the ghouls here with Byzantium, a moody but unfulfilling tale about bloodsucking fiends that’s definitely a lesser work of his. Jordan and his cast (led by Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arterton) can set the mood and atmosphere with aplomb, but they don’t really have anything else going on. Moira Buffini‘s adaptation of her own play frankly is more than a bit on the boring side. Anyone who thought Jordan didn’t have enough interesting going on with his previous undead flick Interview with the Vampire will be bored to tears here. Overly serious but with some very odd and almost campy elements to it (including expanding fingernails…yes, really), the film is an unusual bird, but one that’s never interesting enough to fully get into. I wanted to like this movie, but that never even came close to happening. It’s honestly one of the more disappointing flicks of 2013 so far for me. I was simply hoping for so much more than I wound up getting…
The plot has some original concepts to it (though not many, mind you), but by and large is the sort of thing that never really surprises you with where it’s going. We basically follow Clara (Arterton) and Eleanor (Ronan) as they try and stay inconspicuous and take refuge in a quiet coastal town. They’re rather mysterious women, and they obviously share a secret…they’re not mother and daughter, but senior and junior vampires. The former enjoys the hunt and feeding, while the latter only drinks the blood of the dying. Clara is always protective of Eleanor, perhaps even overly so, but when she finds out that Eleanor has told her new friend Frank (Caleb Landry Jones) just how old she is, things get dangerous. There are those out there who are eager to end Clara’s life, so desperate measures must be taken. What should be exciting and at times even sexy winds up being ponderous and boring. Jordan wants to soak the story in atmosphere, but he’s drained it of anything even remotely compelling in the process. Alas.
There’s some decently good acting on display from some folks here, but no one in the cast is able to blow me away. The two leads are best in show among the actors and actresses, though neither is doing career best work. Gemma Arterton nicely sexes it up as a somewhat classical femme fatale vampire, while Saoirse Ronan has a few things in common with the modern conflicted vampire. They have an interesting mother-daughter dynamic that’s given some time to breathe, but it mostly is intriguing due to their chemistry. I slightly preferred Ronan’s work to Arterton’s here, but both are more than solid enough. Caleb Landry Jones is decent, but one note as a romantic possibility for Eleanor. He becomes too much a plot device for me though, sadly. In terms of other supporting players, Johnny Lee Miller gets to chew the scenery a bit, and Sam Riley has a mildly satisfying supporting part, while the cast is rounded out by the likes of Uri Gavriel, Daniel Mays, and others. As mentioned moments ago, it’s really mostly about Arterton and Ronan. They both do their parts, but neither is able to elevate the material to where I was hoping it would be.
Neil Jordan’s direction is the best part of the movie, but it’s just in the service of an inferior product. The script by Moira Buffini really winds up going nowhere, and slowly. For sure, Jordan could have paced things better, but Buffini pretty much forget to give him anything interesting to work with. Things like fingernails that get erect and sharp when the vampires are at their peak, well…vampire-ness wind up just feeling silly, all the more so when this wants to be a super serious and brooding film. The atmosphere and mood are there in spades, but not a whole lot else turns out to be. Jordan gives the movie a look, but there’s nothing there to feel, essentially. It’s visual artistry in search of a story actually worth telling.
In the end, Byzantium is far from the worst vampire movie ever, but it’s a decidedly mediocre one and not really worth your time. I can’t in good consciousness recommend it to anyone but huge fans of anything vampiric. Jordan has directed better work surrounding the monsters, so while he’s tried to mix it up a bit here, the script 100% lets him down and you’re better off sticking with his pseudo classic. Individual moments wound up clicking for me, but the vast majority of this product is a lot like the characters inside of it…lacking in anything resembling a pulse.
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!