Almost two decades after Neil Jordan directed Interview With The Vampire, he returned to the subgenre of vampire movies with Byzantium, starring the thinking man’s Jennifer Lawrence, Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arterton as a daughter and mother vampires trying to find peace in the modern world.
In my ongoing quest to find vampire movies that resonate with me, I’ve recently reviewed two very watchable ones (Only Lovers Left Aliveand A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night), so I had some high expectations for this movie. While I haven’t watched a Neil Jordan movie in a number of years, I consider him a capable director, and I do like Ronan’s effortless technique, so it’s unfortunate that Byzantium fails on a number of levels for me – none of them the fault of either Jordan or Ronan.
From my other reviews of vampire movies, I’ve already described the aspects I like, and to be sure, both lead characters check off those boxes. I actually liked Ronan’s character, Eleanor, a lot. I felt that longing within her that leads to the decisions she has made for herself in the untold recent backstory of the character, and in the key decisions she makes during the screen story. Whatever her role, Ronan just oozes that sad-girl-at-the-back-of-the-classroom appeal that certain personality types are drawn to. I can’t imagine she’ll ever be in a big payday action movie, though you never know – but she’s perfect for these types of smaller, character-driven parts, and in Byzantium, I enjoyed her portrayal of the vulnerable and sensitive Eleanor, who is tired of being crushed under the weight of her secretive life.
In all honesty, this is really the only part of the movie that appealed to me. In a role that is in stark contrast with Ronan’s, Gemma Arterton (The Voices) plays the mother role, doing what she can to make sure they stay solvent in the modern world by plying her trade as a whore/brothel keeper. I don’t have much of an issue with the motivations here, because one of the major issues modern vampire fiction needs to address here is the problematic issue of immortality in the digital age, and how difficult it is to remain hidden. It’s actually a terrific metaphor for modern life, but while Byzantium address it in plot points, it never really addresses it much on a character level, so I felt that a greater depth of story was missing here. I was also more than tired with the use of sex as a defining characteristic of the vampire. It’s played out for me. The movies about the subject that appeal to me are those that try something a little different. By the time the movie plays this card my interest level dropped, there’s no question. I’ve moved on from the “hot vampire” trope, and I think it’s time respected moviemakers did the same, and left it to the hacks who churn out Netflix or SyFy specials. The trope is like the Wal-Mart of horror.
There’s also something that’s odd about the movie, which I didn’t realize until I ruminated over it before this review, and that the story is essentially this strange mix of adult-orientated elements (bloodletting, killing, beheadings, prostitution, misogyny) with a story that is, at its core, as Young Adult as you can get. As I wondered how to articulate exactly why the movie didn’t appeal to me, I realized this was one of the main reasons. Eleanor is the rebellious sensitive teen with a dark secret, who falls for the wounded psyche of a teen boy, and … yeah, you know the rest. Byzantium is that movie with other parts bolted on. It even has a shadowy organization closing in on them, and a mother to rebel against.
Where the movie fails so badly is in the incongruity of these plot details within the framework of the larger story, and they are major fumbles for me. The shadowy organization are so poorly defined – are they cops, do they work with the cops, are they totally independent? Who knows? It’s so muddled and vague, and the fact that a large “brotherhood” is alluded to, yet represented by the same people from two hundred years ago is just really bad plotting. I understand you need to key off the scenes that take place in the 1800s, buy why not do it thematically? Using the same actors just feels cheap and contrived.
And then there’s that whole YA romance angle. I don’t think I’ve ever been so put off by a performance in a movie than I was by Caleb Landry Jones (X-Men: First Class) as Frank. I thought he was absolutely awful here. I just could not buy for one second that Eleanor would have any interest whatsoever in the mumbling, weird-looking, uninteresting non-entity as he was written and acted. This is one of the most unappealing characters I’ve ever seen in a movie. Not only that, the Big Thing in this movie is the importance of Eleanor’s secret. She is aching to reveal it, but hasn’t. YA love as it is makes you do dumb things, but Eleanor is not a teenager, she’s a 200 year old woman, yet Frank is the guy she metaphorically “gives it up” to (and yeah, the metaphor is that obvious). I just couldn’t get past this character, hence every remaining plot point that included him. It’s sadly indicative of a movie where the major decisions that people make are not just bad, some of them are just plain stupid and badly realized. I found it insane, for example, that two people would read Eleanor’s extremely well-written (seemingly autobiographic) essay and the first thing they think of is that she must be a domestic abuse victim, instead of “Wow, this girl’s a real talent!”.
Like so many other movies that feature a sensitive protagonist in a cruel world, I think that emotive content will cloud people’s judgment when they watch this, but the overriding feelings I have about Byzantium is that of a pedestrian, ineptly written, underwhelming entry in the subgenre of vampire movies that left me with nothing of any note to praise.
© Andrew Hope, 2016
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This review was originally published on 3/21/2016 at https://thatsnotcurrentblog.wordpress.com