There’s nothing like a rich mythology spanning decades to give talented filmmakers a treasure trove of material to spin their own way. We’ve seen it recently when Zack Snyder zeroed in on the aspect of Superman as a being from another world that directors and writers before him have dismissed or brushed off with convenient plot contrivances.
And if there’s one character with an even longer legacy in the collective consciousness of literary, cinematic and popular culture than the superhero, it’s the vampire. After all, there’s no central authority that says vampires have to die in sunlight – maybe they’re just not as strong, or maybe they sparkle? And who says they have to have sharp teeth? In Richard Laymon’s 1990 horror novel ”The Stake”, the vampire changes into a seagull that pecks a tiny hole in the hero’s knee to feed, explaining that vampires aren’t monsters or killers at all.
So why not, as playwright Moira Buffini and director Neil Jordan ask, have vampires possess an extendable thumbnail they use to slit their victims’ skins to feed? And why not give them personalities like anyone else, in this case headstrong mother Clara (Gemma Arterton) who’s seen how humanity mistreats women of her means and would kill or die to protect her daughter Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), eternally on the cusp of adulthood, introverted and not wanting to hurt anybody despite her nature?
”Byzantium”’s cross-cutting narrative tells us about how brassy hooker Clara first entered her profession centuries before and put her daughter Eleanor in a convent to protect her against the same fate by the same predatory men in Clara’s life.
We first meet the two women doing what they normally do – Clara working in a strip club, Eleanor writing her life story only to throw the pages away because she knows it’s a secret she can’t share with anyone.
When a mysterious man confronts Clara at work and chases her home, she exacts a daring and bloody escape and her and Eleanor are on the move again, this time to a seaside holiday town Eleanor’s sure they’ve been to before.
The girls meet a benefactor in doltish Noel (Daniel Mays), who owns a run down guesthouse that gives the film its title. Clara proceeds to turn it into a brothel staffed by the girls who trawl the windy promenade looking for tricks, and Eleanor catches the eye of sickly local kid Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), finding herself drawn to him even though she knows being human makes him completely wrong for her.
But the compulsion to share her story and have someone understand her is driving Eleanor quietly crazy, and Frank seems to be the boy to receive it. Meanwhile, two fearsome colleagues of the man who tried to capture Clara at their last home are on the girls’ trail, seemingly some sort of vampire control authority.
The film cuts back and forth between the 21st and 19th centuries as we learn about the cad that introduced Clara into her life of prostitution, the officer colleague of his that found the source of eternal undeath on a remote, rocky island and how Clara and Eleanor claimed the gift for themselves and spent the next 200 years on the run alone.
Of course, none of the bending of the rules of vampire mythology would amount to much if there was no story on screen to go with it. If there’s a theme in ”Byzantium”, it’s the idea of finding out where you belong when you know you’re alone, and wanting people to know who you really are. Whenever Eleanor has asked her mother where they come from, Clara dismisses her with a chirpy rebuttal, telling Eleanor they should always be looking forward in order to cover over her own painful memories over.
Like in all his films, Jordan doesn’t shy away from violence or blood, but his sensibility feels like an old bookshop full of literary classics and muted hues, all the while with a simmering sexuality underneath (and not just because of Arterton’s at-times very revealing wardrobe).
It’s also unmistakably a product of the British Isles – from Arterton’s turns of phrase to the rainy seaside locality, nothing about ”Byzantium” looks like the work of an American film crew cherry picking from a catalogue of English stereotypes like so many movies do.
If you’re not sick of vampires yet, here’s another example about how there’s still so much more to be explored in the genre. And most pleasant of all, it’s a vampire film for adults.