Byzantium: Toronto Review

Gemma Arterton
Neil Jordan interviews a whole new set of vampires but draws precious little blood.

Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan play 200-year-old vampires in director Neil Jordan's female twist on the bloodsucking genre.

TORONTO -- “I am Eleanor Webb. I throw my story to the wind.” So says the ancient child-woman played by Saoirse Ronan in Byzantium. In a sense that’s what director Neil Jordan and screenwriter Moira Buffini do too, allowing this moody but convoluted century-hopping reinvention of the vampire myth to drift in too many meandering directions before it finally comes together with a semblance of focus in the concluding stretch.

The film is handsomely made, shot by Sean Bobbitt with a blend of gritty naturalism and shadowy storybook fantasy, and a widescreen frame often painted with striking images. It also benefits from Javier Navarette’s lush score. But Jordan’s return to territory he traveled in Interview with the Vampire and to a lesser extent The Company of Wolves is sluggish and lacking in bite. It has neither thrills nor suspense.

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Buffini makes a promising choice by taking a route closer to that of Anne Rice than of Stephenie Meyer or Charlaine Harris, respectively authors of the Twilight and True Blood series. But her screenplay for Byzantium lacks the clarity, depth of character and robust story sense the writer brought to Tamara Drewe and Jane Eyre. While Buffini adapted the new film from her 2008 young adult play A Vampire Story, the script has more of a novelistic sweep, attempting to cover too many plot strands across two time periods and struggling to find a consistent tone. Troweling on voiceover at every turn doesn’t help.

Born in 1804 yet forever 16, Eleanor is first seen living on a drab council estate where she endures the pain of her haunted past by writing the story of her life that can never be told, disposing of it page by page. The melancholy teen kills only those who seek the release of death. She displays no visible fangs, just a retractable pointed thumbnail to make the first incision.

First described by Eleanor as her muse, Clara (Gemma Arterton), is the polar opposite of the younger girl. While Eleanor is intensely still, introspective and burdened by secrets, Clara is volatile and trashy. A lap-dancer with a temper, Clara is chased down by a mysterious agent (Thure Lindhardt), who she promptly beheads with a garrote. Obviously not for the first time, she tells Eleanor to pack for a hasty move.

They land in a sleepy coastal town where Eleanor insists they’ve been before, seeing visions of herself on the beach among a gaggle of Georgian-era schoolgirls. Clara picks up morose Noel (Daniel Mays), who has inherited a boarding house called Byzantium and run it into the ground. Passing Eleanor off as her sister, Clara moves them in, then dispatches a local pimp and recruits his girls, repurposing the old hotel as a brothel.

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Eleanor, meanwhile, has formed a cautious attachment with Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), a sickly youth with stringy hair whose leukemia medication causes him to bleed profusely when injured. His fragility and proximity to death make him a perfect match for Eleanor, who shares her story for the first time, ostensibly as an exercise for writing class. (An unbilled Tom Hollander plays the teacher who gets unwisely intrigued.)

Where the film gets seriously bogged down is in the muddy flashbacks to the same location two centuries earlier. Clara is transformed from poor waif to harlot by sinister Navy captain Ruthven (Jonny Lee Miller), despite the efforts to intervene of his kinder, gentler lieutenant, Darvell (Sam Riley). There’s much back and forth as we learn that Clara gave birth to a daughter (guess who?), placed in an orphanage while her consumptive mother kept whoring to pay for her upkeep.

Clara and Eleanor’s transformation into vampires could have been dispensed with in a quick flash or two. Instead Jordan and Buffini slow the momentum by wading through developments with Ruthven and Darvell. Mostly, the director seems bewitched by the imagery of a cave on a rocky island, from which flocks of blackbirds spew forth and the surrounding waterfalls gush with blood every time a new “soucriant” is born. These scenes are moderately cool but don’t justify being seen in repeat mode.

We learn that Clara violated the rules of the exclusively male, class-conscious vampire order – archly named “The Pointed Nails of Justice” – whose goons have been pursuing the female outlaws ever since. But the backstory generally is far less involving than the present.

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The bigger disappointment is the script’s failure to exploit the emotional potential of mother-daughter vampires struggling to make a living, stay off-radar and survive. This is also due to the lack of a deep connection between the two characters or the actresses playing them.

Ronan has shown before that she can be compelling even in a mishandled movie (The Lovely Bones) or one drowning in self-conscious style (Hanna). She’s always an interesting presence, and her scenes with Jones’ pale, otherworldly Frank have a nice sorrowful texture. But there’s too little heat of either the loving or conflicted kind between Eleanor and Clara, who is played by Arterton as a dangerous tart in killer outfits, but not much more.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation)
Production companies: Number 9 Films, Parallel Films, Demarest Films
Cast: Gemma Arterton, Saoirse Ronan, Sam Riley, Jonny Lee Miller, Daniel Mays, Caleb Landry Jones, Thure Lindhardt, Uri Gavriel, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Tom Hollander
Director: Neil Jordan
Screenwriter: Moira Buffini, based on her play “A Vampire’s Story”
Producers: Stephen Woolley, Alan Moloney, Elizabeth Karlsen, William D. Johnson, Samuel Englebardt
Executive producers: Mark C. Manuel, Ted O’Neal, Sharon Harel-Cohen, Danny Perkins, Norman Merry
Director of photography: Sean Bobbitt
Production designer: Simon Elliott
Music: Javier Navarette
Costume designer: Consolata Boyle
Editor: Tony Lawson
Sales: WestEnd Films/CAA/WME
No rating, 118 minutes