The vampire genre has undergone something of a transformation in recent years. With the advent of the ridiculously popular Twilight series, we’ve moved away from the passionate, bloodthirsty melodrama of the past, toward a more friendly, bloodless, teenage angst love story. So most films now either have to tackle the Twilight films head on, or avoid them like the plague. In the case of Neil Jordan’s return to the genre Byzantium, it’s not immediately clear what he’s decided to do.
Nomadic mother-daughter team Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor (Saoirise Ronan) are forced to leave their home after n incident in the strip club where works involving a mysterious man and a decapitation. Heading for a rundown seaside town somewhere in England, they each discover someone who can help them with their needs. Clara meets Noel (Daniel Mays) whose recently dead mother left him a rundown hotel called the Byzantium where Clara can setup a new brothel to make them some money. Meanwhile, Eleanor meets a young waiter Frank (Caleb Landry Jones) who provides her with a friendly ear where she can finally reveal her incredible, 200-year-old story.
Starting with a pulsing action chase scene that culminates with someone jumping through a glass ceiling and onto a conveniently placed bouncy castle, Byzantium gives the impression that it’s going to present you with a racy, slightly camp return to form for the director who last gave us Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise as vampire lovers/enemies in Interview with a Vampire. But then as quickly as it starts, the pace slows to a crawl and once established in the run down town, the cracks start to appear both in the characters facades and regrettably the script.
The themes are heavy with plenty of depth, considering the turmoil of eternal life and the difficulty in forming lasting relationships. It’s all well-trod Vampire ground, but Byzantium doesn’t ever shy away. In fact in the more impressive moments, almost all of which are flashbacks, we see the excitement of creation and the terror of what lies ahead for our main characters. In fact in one wonderfully realised moment Gemma Arterton, all bodice-shoving cleavage and sass drenches herself under a deluge of blood. But then we return to the present, to the seaside and to the boredom.
Apart from the lack of a real sense of location throughout, which is a huge problem. The narrative drags so slowly and with so little purpose that you’re just waiting for something of note to happen. The early stages have enough intrigue to keep us interested as we await the sudden, violent explosive finale that never really comes. Sure there’s a showdown of sorts, but by the time it happens any goodwill has been exhausted along with our patience. Jordan is fortunate that he can rely on two great central performances to make up for a lot that is lacking in the script, although Arterton’s fiery-but-protective mother seems to be in a different film from the sensitive yet considered performance by Ronan. Caleb Landry Jones, an interesting actor, struggles to put a coherent accent to his sickly knight in shining armour and it is the sections that involve him and Eleanor that drag the most.
It’s a shame that the pacing, action and intent is so uneven, because somewhere in this hodge-podge of themes and ideas is a great big camp Gothic horror as well as a thoughtful independent character piece, but neither make enough of a mark to be successful. At one point, a seaside local (Tom Hollander), having read Eleanor’s story remarks that ˜It’s like what would happen if Edgar Allen Poe and Mary Shelley got together and had a very strange child. If only. With a slightly pretentious attitude replacing actual dramatic thrust, Jordan has clearly tried to avoid the Twilight influence in favour of a more adult-themed film, but what he’s ironically managed to achieve is a film riddled with pretension and teenage angst a la Stephanie Mayer. It takes itself far too seriously considering the how ridiculous it is.