This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 4th August 2013
“Everything attracted me to it except the fact it was about vampires,” said director Neil Jordan in a recent interview, on being invited to helm Byzantium, the latest in a long line of vampire stories. I have to say, I rather felt the same way. Haven’t we been saturated in bloody tales, on film (Twilight) and TV (True Blood)? What could anyone possibly do differently to reboot the genre?
Well, Jordan has given it a pretty good shot, and produced a serviceable addition to both the genre and his career, which notably includes the mega-hit Interview with a Vampire which starred both Brad and Tom (and a young Kirsten Dunst – that’s how long ago it was).
Largely set in contemporary Britain (for all intents and purposes it’s Brighton on the south coast, though never explicitly so), Byzantium follows Gemma Arterton’s buxom vamp Clara and her purported younger sister Eleanor as they go on the run from those who want them dead. Properly dead, this time. Inevitably, these ladies of the night encounter living civilians whose worlds they become embroiled – the pasty Caleb Landry Jones (from Antiviral) is perfect as a sickening teen, while Clara literally throws herself into the arms of the grieving son of a whorehouse madam (you can see at once she’ll fit right in).
The narrative hops back in time to tell the story, in vapid voiceover thanks to Saoirse Ronan’s usual take on “tortured youth”, of how Clara and Eleanor came to be. It’s well-scripted, even if the tale isn’t particularly new, and all the performances do what they must (Arterton exploiting her heaving bosom to make up for any gaps in character). Ronan is now solidly typecast in ethereal outsider roles, but to be fair, neither she nor anyone else is actually bad, although Jonny Lee Miller and the usually brilliant Sam Riley (Control) are underused.
It is beautifully photographed with energetic camerawork, and some sumptuous moments thanks to a spot-on soundtrack. Lovers of vampire flicks will appreciate the aesthetic, and the tale is perfectly engaging if you’re just looking to be entertained rather than enthralled. For some viewers, Arterton’s cleavage alone might provide the biggest draw.