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Gemma Arterton as Clara in Byzantium.
Gemma Arterton as Clara in Byzantium.

Byzantium: A blood-sucking drama with feminist fangs Add to ...

  • Directed by Neil Jordan
  • Written by Moira Buffini
  • Starring Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton
  • Classification 14A
  • Genre thriller
  • Country USA
  • Language English

Irish director Neil Jordan returns to the vampire genre, after his adaptation of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire almost 20 years ago, with Byzantium, a drama about a mother-daughter conflict of a couple of centuries duration.

Screenwriter Moira Buffini (Jane Eyre, Tamara Drewe), who adapted the script from her own young-adult play, offers a more overtly feminist take on the blood-sucking genre than that of her colleagues Stephenie Meyer (Twilight) or Charlaine Harris (True Blood), in a drama that feels both strenuously earnest and impossible to take seriously.

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The story focuses on a solemn teenaged girl, Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), who informs us in the film’s voice-over: “ I am Eleanor Webb. I throw my story to the wind.” That is to say, she writes down the facts of her unusual life and throws them out the window, page after page. Though she was born in 1804, Eleanor remains 16 forever, a vampire teen who only bites people who are tired of human life. Her own life is not exactly a glamour fest. She shares a dumpy apartment with an obnoxious roommate, Clara (Gemma Arterton), a stripper, sometimes prostitute, thief and, when necessary, killer of pushy males. Worse, Clara happens to be Eleanor’s mom.

After an apparently typical, unpleasant encounter with a violent pursuer, Clara and Eleanor lam it to a quiet coastal city. Eleanor begins having visions of a visit there in a previous century, while the more pragmatic Clara picks up a trick, the doleful, Noel (Daniel Mays). To her delight, she learns he has recently inherited a ramshackle boarding hotel called Byzantium.

This literary name, no doubt, echoes Irish poet William Butler Yeats’s Sailing to Byzantium, on the anguish of mortality “when the heart is fastened to a dying animal.” No such poetic concerns bother Clara, who decides the joint will be the perfect place to open a brothel.

Meanwhile, the more subdued Eleanor, has met a young suitor, Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), whose terminal leukemia echoes her own blood condition. At a creative-writing class they both attend, the teacher insists they compose stories about their lives. Eleanor decides to come clean with her vampiric history, which gets her into trouble with both school officials and an ancient order of male vampires.

What grinds Byzantium down is the backstory, told in murky flashbacks, in which serial rapist and Royal Navy Officer, Captain Ruthven (Jonny Lee Miller), turns poor young women into “harlots,” while his kinder underling, Darvell (Sam Riley), looks disturbed. Soon after, the despoiled Clara turns to prostitution to support her baby girl. She then catches consumption and is headed for death, unless she can discover the trick to immortality, which is found in a cave on a rocky island with a waterfall that spurts blood. That’s also home base for a group of misogynist male vampires who refer to themselves, no kidding, as “the Pointed Nails of Justice.” After Clara breaks into their sanctum, she’s a hunted woman.

The awkwardly reworked mythology of secret maps, charitable euthanasia and long thumbnails feels like so much generic claptrap, and the improbabilities pile up as the film progresses and grows increasingly earnest.

There was, perhaps, a missed opportunity here to revitalize a genre that grows morbidly duller with each new iteration. Surely, there’s at least a good purgatorial comedy in this fractious 200-year-old relationship between a shallow sexpot mother and her morose literary daughter, who, no matter how long they live, remain incapable of growing up.

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