‘A film that grasps for greater meaning but winds up flailing around in the dark‘ – MacDara Conroy on Neil Jordan’s modern vampire fable Byzantium
The vampire film is almost as old as the medium of cinema itself. Think back to Nosferatu, the urtext of German expressionism, or how Hollywood was built on the likes of Tod Browning’s Dracula. Decades later, spirited interpretations of Bram Stoker’s fertile mythology revived the British film industry, and later still provided inspiration for higher brow fare from Francis Ford Coppola and Guillermo del Toro, who gave his vampiric debut Cronos a distinct Latin twist. Of course in more recent years the vampire story has been co-opted by the Young Adult romance crowd, with Twilight and its ilk dragging the genre down to the depths of uselessness. And I’d argue that director Neil Jordan is as much to blame as anyone for this, as his own 1994 blockbuster Interview with the Vampire – with its pretty, preening vampire princes – precipitated the toothless drivel that fills today’s multiplexes with fawning teens.
It’s in this desperate climate, where mainstream horror pivots between pseudo-profound romance guff and gratuitous torture porn, that Jordan returns to the vampire film with Byzantium. In the opening, alternating scenes, we meet Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) and Clara (Gemma Arterton): the former a teenage girl erudite beyond her years, a wilting rose amid the concrete hell of a crumbling tower block; the latter older, more streetwise, a strip club dancer with a razor-sharp attitude. Their relationship is ambiguous – are they sisters? mother and daughter? – though it’s revealed quite early on that the pair are vampires of a kind, with an elongated thumbnail supplanting the usual pointy fangs. The incidents through which we learn their true nature force the duo on the run, and they seek a new start in a rundown coastal resort town that hosts the dingy Hotel Byzantium that becomes their home, and a whole bat-cave of secrets from their past – not least their encounters with the kindly, genteel Darvell (Control‘s Sam Riley) and the sinister, slavering Ruthven (Jonny Lee Miller). How Eleanor and Clara came to be the way they are, and what fate threatens to befall them in the present day, makes up the rest of the story in a film that grasps for greater meaning but winds up flailing around in the dark.
Much of that darkness is the shadow cast by Interview with the Vampire. And as Jordan makes allusions to that poor showing so easy to draw – the storytelling via flashbacks; the dichotomous relationships of the two leads; the compulsion to confess dark secrets perhaps better left unsaid; even the thumbnail-for-fang switch is lifted from Lestat’s wrist-puncture bling – the fault lies squarely at his feet. Not that it’s all bad: Ronan and Arterton are far and away more arresting leads than Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise; the film’s mythos (without giving the game away) is a smart take on the genre; and the seaside location, with its inherent creepiness and melancholy, is a neat hat-tip to the roots of vampire fiction (Dracula landed at Whitby, after all). But it’s the bits that don’t work that stand out in the memory.
Moira Buffini’s script, adapted from her own teen-oriented stage play A Vampire Story, makes the same mistakes as Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, discarding narrative ambiguity for a definitive interpretation that diminishes its strengths as it widely misses the point. And while removing the elements of her play that might work best, Buffini left in many of the parts that don’t: the clunky, stagey scenes and dialogue heavily pregnant with subtext, all communicated in the language of the theatre, not the screen. Jordan does make efforts to set his fable in a gritty milieu – the horrors-close-to-home realism that makes an obvious benchmark like Let The Right One In so powerful – but they’re undermined by the stifling poise of a narrative driven by convenient coincidences, with a romantic streak better suited to the Hammer films of old, and a metatextual twist in the final reel that purports to explain some of the film’s earlier contrivances but only adds to the list of annoyances.
Then there’s the cast of characters, divvied up between caricatures (the tart-with-a-heart and nerd-as-loser clichés) and plot devices (Maria Doyle Kennedy pops up towards the end, and has little to do with her part). Even Darvell and Ruthven’s hammy good-cop-bad-cop routine is just a variation on the Louis and Lestat double act. To be fair to Saoirse Ronan, she plays her role with aplomb; it’s the role she’s given that’s the problem. Likewise, Arterton lights up the screen when she appears, but that’s not always to the film’s benefit; she’s too often no more than the agent of change whenever the time-twisting plot needs a boost. Better is Caleb Landry Jones – the term ‘gangly’ was surely invented for him – as the enigmatic Frank, the love interest with an unplaceable accent and unsettlingly awkward mannerisms who provides much that the story, in all its rigidity, sadly fails to explore. Also wasted is the seaside setting, utilised to much better effect in Gary Sherman’s little-seen existential horror Dead & Buried. It’s all a bit too tame in the end.
If Jordan’s attempt with Byzantium was to make a better film than Interview with the Vampire, he’s achieved that much – but it’s hardly fair to call it a success, as it simply doesn’t do enough to right that earlier film’s wrongs, and ends up fitting in with the Twilight crowd a little too neatly for its own good. We know Jordan can do better than this; he built his reputation on superior work of more subtle suggestion and nuance. But The Company of Wolves this certainly isn’t.