By Don Simpson | July 19, 2013
Director: Neil Jordan
Writer: Moira Buffini
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, Caleb Landry Jones, Sam Riley, Barry Cassin, Warren Brown, Ruby Snape, Thure Lindhardt, Glenn Doherty, Edyta Budnik, Gabriela Marcinkova, Daniel Mays, Uri Gavriel, Jonny Lee Miller, Caroline Johns, Christine Marzano, Kate Ashfield, Jeff Mash, Maria Doyle Kennedy
Byzantium is told from the perspective of Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), a “sucreant” who is eternally 16-years-old. Haunted by her blood-soaked personal history, Eleanor repeatedly transcribes the sorrowful tale of her birth [and rebirth], then poetically tosses the pages into the wind. After doing this for over a hundred years, she has perfected her narrative by way of repetition, in the same way that she flawlessly nails Beethoven’s “Piano Sonata Opus 2, No. 3.” The act of writing is a perverse form of penance, as if Eleanor is pleading for forgiveness or acceptance, but mere mortals accept her stories as ghastly fairytales. No matter how much Eleanor tries to confess the truth, everyone assumes that she must be lying.
The primary subject of Eleanor’s story is her guardian, Clara (Gemma Arterton). Many years ago, sex took Clara’s freedom away from her. Raped as a teenager and suddenly burdened by an unplanned baby, Clara had no choice but to turn to prostitution in order to achieve financial stability and discover a personal identity without being bound to a man. Sex quickly empowered Clara with tools of persuasion, control and independence in a world in which men typically controlled the fate of women.
In an unrivaled act of feminist rebellion, Clara forced her way into a secret brotherhood of “sucreants.” Historically an elite men’s club of the undead, “sucreants” are like vampires except that the daylight does not harm them and they use a long fingernail rather than fangs to puncture human arteries. Fearing a vaginal uprising in their midst, the male “sucreants” wish to extinguish Clara from this earth.
In the present, Clara continues to search for a safe home for Eleanor, still relying upon the sex trade to maintain their independence. All the while, Eleanor has learned to use her life as a “sucreant” to do good, easing the pain of the aged and dying by way of euthanasia.
The images of Eleanor with her pale-faced, teenage suitor — Frank (Caleb Landry Jones) — are absolutely mesmerizing. He is terminally ill and she is undead; they both flaunt an unnaturally white skin tone, like inhuman brethren from another time and place. The nearly monotone images of dilapidated English towns (in itself an elegy for the ghosts of a man-made history) are accented with splashes of bright red. Sure, the color red might seem like an all too obvious touch for a sexy film about the blood-thirsty undead, but director Neil Jordan pulls it off with unabashed classic romanticism.
While the visual elements of Byzantium are quite stunning, an over-reliance on flashbacks unfortunately muddles the narrative. The plot seems to try to go too many directions, sadly diminishing the riot girl mantra that rests somewhere near its heart. With Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, Caleb Landry Jones and Sam Riley, Jordan assembles the perfect cast for Byzantium, but these actors do almost too good of a job of showcasing the lifelessness of their characters. Regardless, Byzantium is certainly one of the more intelligent and mature vampire films to be released in the last decade.