Byzantium

Byzantium

  • 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.
  • Final Grade: B-

28 thoughts on “Byzantium

  1. Very much agree. I enjoyed the film but I doubt it would be one i’ll ever feel the need to go back to it. Some impressive visuals (especially on the Island), however, I agree with the lack of development on Sam Riley’s part, his actions in the final scenes really came out of the blue for me due to the lack of detail given to him previously. Would happily watch a sequel were one to be made, it hinted at an interesting world.

    • I usually don’t either (in fact there are few things that turn me against a movie faster than vampires). But this one is more character centric than the bulk of its genre and is therefore more tolerable. 🙂

  2. I love the sound of this flick and will likely get around to it eventually, but somehow I keep forgetting that Neil Jordan’s the director. That should theoretically hasten me to see it. Alas…

  3. I’m a fan of Saorise Ronan after Attonement and Hanna. This is one I want to see and I liked reading how Neil Jordan uses different shots to bring emotion into the story. Good review. will check this out soon.

    • I like her, too, though I’ve seen neither Atonement nor Hanna and she was rotten in The Host. She’s quite good in How I Live Now, and even better here.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  4. I really need to watch this, and your review is confirming my anticipation. Awesome post!

    Also, if you could pop on over and vote for the best three films of 2013, that’d be awesome! Need to start compiling, so the sooner the better! If the poll is closed, just leave a comment or shoot me an email :).

    • I think you will, then. This one is quite similar, except without that odd plotting/character lag that plagues Interview With a Vampire, the one that has us wait for Louis to transition from Lestat to Armand’s mentorship. Because of that middle act flaw in Interview, I would call Byzantium a touch better, though I surely like both.

  5. While I think comparing Arterton to Cruise in Interview is going too far I loved her work here. The film was certainly atmospheric but nowhere near Interview with the Vampire for me.Still, a step up from Jodan’s recent work.

    • Thanks again for the comment.

      I guess I liked this one a bit better than you. Or maybe Interview a bit less. Because I actually think this, as a standalone product, is a little better. Byzantium doesn’t suffer from what I see as the thirty minute-ish lag in the middle of Interview while Louis transitions from Lestat’s to Armand’s mentorship.

      But because Byzantium comes second and because it is so similar, it feels less fresh than Interview did.

      • Oh, Interview is one of my favorite movies and one of the better adaptations I’ve seen 🙂 but Byzantium certainly surprised me in a good way, barely anyone talks about this movie but it deserves more attention, if only for the atmosphere and interesting approach to the subject.

  6. One of the year’s pleasant surprise, and compare to other things Ronan did this year this is probably my favorite (still not great but better than the others). Not a lot of people seemed to care for the nuance that the film trying to achieve beyond its genre. Such a shame because the film definitely deserve more recognition.

    • I think it is definitely solid.

      I have seen Ronan in The Way I Live Now, The Host and this. This is definitely her finest of the three, though I think the second half of The Way I Live Now is pretty good, too.

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