A deeply moving documentary about the overpowering effects of drugs makes up for a vampire thriller with some potential but no real bite.
Reviews by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
Director: Neil Jordan
Stars: Gemma Arterton, Saoirse Ronan, Sam Riley, Jonny Lee Miller, Daniel Mays, Caleb Landry Jones
Running time: 118 minutes
We've reached a breaking point with vampire movies. At this stage in the game, even when they're competently made and well-acted, marginally imaginative bloodsucker flicks still smack of disabling familiarity. Byzantium, a return to undead terrain for director Neil Jordan (Interview with the Vampire, is, on the positive side, the best vampire film in years, and most of the credit goes to Jordan's solid cast, namely Gemma Arterton as the sultriest vamp since the 1970s, when countries like Italy and England specialized in steamy creatures of the night (see: The Vampire Lovers). And Jordan, to his credit, keeps the gruesome viscera on display while also nailing a few moments of tension. But a feeling of deja vu persists—it's nothing we haven't seen before, and not excellent enough to make you forget that.
The heart of the movie lies in Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), a forever-teenage vampire who mercifully drinks from willing, dying elders and is minded by Clara (Arterton), whom Eleanor refers to as her sister but is actually her mother. Eleanor writes in her diary, telling her story with an author's perceptiveness—she calls Clara, "my savior," "my burden," "my muse." The companions love each other, but their relationship is strained; Clara, a live-wire who's unafraid to use her sexuality to manipulate and feed on people, demands that Eleanor keep their secret hidden, but the younger living corpse just wants to lose the vampiric restrictions and be normal.
Byzantium opens strongly, with Clara, working as a stripper/prostitute, getting discovered by a mysterious secret-agent-like vamp (Thure Lindhardt) who's been tracking her for a long time. A chase ensues, and, in pure survival mode, Clara wraps a wire around his neck and yanks his head clean off; from that, one gets the sense that Byzantium is heading into some interesting Bourne Identity by way of horror directions, yet, once Clara flees with Eleanor to a new city and becomes a makeshift bordello operator, Jordan's film gets overpowered by it boring, unconvincingly romantic subplot involving Eleanor's interactions with a sick teenage boy (Caleb Landry Jones).
Byzantium turns into a reverse-sex Twilight. It's ultimately a perfunctory and lightweight affair that not even a gorgeously shot and reasonably compelling series of mythology-building flashbacks centered on Arterton's origins can elevate into something that's easily recommendable for anyone who's not a vampire completest.