A twist on Twilight style vampires, Byzantium is propelled by earnest central performances and skillful direction, elements that combine to overcome an uneven script.
Director Neil Jordan ratchets suspense by interweaving stories from multiple eras; by using a somber score that is equal parts subtle and unassuming; and by employing toned down voice over that helps explain, but never give away, the plot.
Moreover, Jordan uses mostly wide angles, a decision that heightens the power of close ups. Each time the camera closes on a character’s face or some other visual, it is particularly important.
Through these and other choices, the director creates a creepy and mysterious mood.
The actors help him in that regard. Saoirse Ronan is quietly composed as Eleanor Webb, save for a few crucial scenes in which her reserve practically melts into unrestrained emotion. Hers is a character that favorably combines Louis and Claudia from Interview with a Vampire (1994), another Jordan film, and Ronan captures both Claudia’s youthful longing as well as Louis’ soulful regret.
Gemma Arterton is even better, making us feel Clara’s sense of duty and her malicious determination. Arterton is Byzantium’s version of Lestat, and she is just as riveting as Tom Cruise.
I mention Interview With a Vampire intentionally. In many ways, Byzantium is similar to that earlier picture (even much of the music is reminiscent), which could be meritorious or discreditable. Some viewers might think Byzantium a strong companion piece to Jordan’s mid-nineties movie while others might deem it derivative.
Taken on its own terms, Byzantium develops its female leads well. We understand Clara’s violent demand for secrecy as well as we do Eleanor’s wish for social connection. Both women are complex and fascinating characters who claim our attention throughout.
Secondary (male) characters are not as well developed, however. Darvell (Sam Riley) and Frank’s (Caleb Jones) motivations are shrouded from the audience. Given the former’s importance to the climax and the latter’s significance throughout, both necessitate better characterization. Frank is especially problematic, since we can only guess at his powerful attraction to Eleanor, as well as why he turns over her story to their teacher.
Which says nothing about Ruthven (Johnny Lee Miller) who is so evil as to become cliche.
Moreover, Moira Buffini’s script under-explains the mechanics of vampirism. Some traditional tropes apply (vampires must be invited to enter someone’s house), but others do not (sunlight doesn’t hurt them). Jordan and Buffini never explain the discrepancies.
They also make minor plotting mistakes. Most significantly, why would Ruthven and Darvell include Clara in their discussion of immortality?
Yet Byzantium remains an effective film, mostly because Jordan’s direction and the two lead characters/actors are so captivating.