Sunday, September 09, 2012


(United Kingdom/United States/Ireland, 2012)
Cast: Gemma Arterton, Saoirse Ronan, Sam Reilly, Daniel Mays, Jonny Lee Miller, Caleb Landry Jones
Written by: Moira Buffini
Directed by: Neil Jordan

The always-surprising Neil Jordan revisits the world of the undead for the first time since his 1994 adaptation of a certain famous Anne Rice novel, but don't mention the "v-word"--no one in the film ever does. 

More than 200 years old but trapped in the image of a teenager,  Eleanor Webb (Ronan) has chronicled her life in a journal, which she disposes of page by page at random locations.  Subsiding on human blood, she shows mercy in her feeding, targeting those who desire the release that death can bring.  She lives with haughty, voluptuous Clara (Arterton, every film should have one...), introduced as her "muse", who is also immortal and seduces her prey in her job as a stripper.  When pursued by a mysterious assassin, Clara beheads him and then hits the road as a fugitive with Eleanor in tow. They hole up in a run down hotel in a coastal town, Byzantium, run by dim Noel (Mays), who honestly believes Clara would select him as her lover for no other reason.  She passes off Eleanor, who has visions of a past life there, as her sister, and turns the hotel into a busy brothel.

Via flashbacks, we learn that Clara violated the rules of the exclusively patriarchal vampire subculture--“The Pointed Nails of Justice” –by converting females to the order, whose agents have been pursuing the duo for centuries (18th century flashbacks with Jonny Lee Miller are more than a bit too broad and hokey, but are essential to the narrative).  The conversion of a human to a new “sucreant” involves a remote island and flocks of blackbirds and gushing waterfalls of blood, and, while not making a link of sense, makes for gloriously baroque viewing.

Meanwhile Eleanor enrols in the local high school and befriends Frank (Jones, also appearing in Brandon Cronenberg's "Antiviral"), a fellow wallflower who wins her trust and brings out the truth about her unique life.  He learns that Clara is, in fact, her mother.  Clara was born in 1804 yet remains forever sixteen.  Transformed, she and her mother must drink human blood to live.  When Eleanor learns Frank has leukemia, she realizes she can grant him life, via death.  But should she...?

Not your traditional "vampire" yarn, the women sport no fangs--instead, an elongated nail that can  sever arteries. They can move about in broad daylight, but still must be invited into a person's home. 
Saoirse Ronan dazzles once again with her lissom, chameleonic quality--alternately naive and worldly, frail and menacing (she's only 18 years old)--which brought her an Oscar nomination for her first role in "Atonement".  She continued to impress in Peter Jackson's underrated "The Lovely Bones", and of course, secured a place in the hearts of action buffs as "Hanna". 

Screenwriter Buffini based her screenplay on her own Young Adult play "A Vampire's Tale".  Otherwise relatively straight-forward chase yarn with some elements of Jordan's self-penned "Mona Lisa", "The Crying Game", and "Ondine", "Byzantium" does offer a unique Gaelic twist on traditional elements, with Sam Bobbitt's cinematography evocatively capturing the story's duelling eras of gritty, contemporary realism and operatic, Hammer-esque Gothic fantasy.

©Robert J. Lewis 2012