Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Review: "Byzantium"

I think it's pretty clear to most observers that the whole vampires-as-passionate-lovers shtick is about played out. So it's curious to see director Neil Jordan, who helped kick things off with the 1994 film version of "Interview with the Vampire," making a movie that plays out like a high-minded twist on the "Twilight" flicks.

"Byzantium" boasts Jordan's signature stylistic flourishes and sexual undercurrents. A favorite recurring theme of his, the mysterious stranger with a game-changing secret, is here represented by Eleanor. As played by Saoirse Ronan, she's over 200 years old but perpetually caught in adolescence after being turned into an immortal blood-drinker by her own mother, Clara (Gemma Arterton).

Arterton and Ronan are only a few years apart in age, and indeed their characters identify themselves as sisters to avoid suspicion. They've been traveling the world for two centuries, on the run from the brotherhood of vampires that views them as outlaws.

While Eleanor is smart, cultured and finely mannered, Clara is a low-born trollop -- literally. After being turned to prostitution at a young age and giving up her baby to a convent, she's never been able to shake her bent toward sexual exploitation. She makes an itinerant living as a stripper or prostitute, and is always scheming up a new con job.

While Clara kills wantonly and sometimes for pleasure, Eleanor only feasts upon people who know they want to die -- usually the old and lonely, with whom she shares a few intimate moments before exchanging need for need.

Their past catches up to them, and after a gruesome encounter they flee to an unnamed beach resort town, the sort of place populated by cheap carny workers and musty retirement residents. Clara quickly latches onto a sad sack (Daniel Mays) who inherited an old hotel, and soon they've set up shop there.

The story plays out in a mix of high and low concepts. Flashbacks to their origins have a novelistic feel, a tragic tale of woe amid the petticoats and arrogant noblemen. The modern sequences, though, have a moody feel and a sleek visual look. They're joined by a framing device in which Eleanor writes out her forbidden story, longhand of course, and tosses the pages into the wind.

Ronan, whose liquid blue eyes and bland prettiness tend to steer her toward passive roles, displays an impressive range of moods and emotions -- even scaring the wits out of a nosy teacher who asks too many questions. Arterton has a swashbuckling verve as the libidinous Clara.

I quite enjoyed the performance of Caleb Landry Jones as Frank, a shy boy who notices Eleanor and begins to gravitate toward her. A sickly young man, Frank is perpetually hunched and peering, and Jones croaks out all his dialogue as if he's ashamed of the words he has to utter. It's a stylized but affecting performance, and we feel Frank's sense of estrangement from the world around him, and how he would see Eleanor as a kindred soul.

"Byzantium" builds up to some fairly predictable plot turns, so the movie didn't hold many surprises for me story-wise. But it did make the idea of the eternal undead living amongst us seem fresh and even a little sexy again, which I didn't think possible. When you don't treat them as fare for teenybopper fantasies, vampires can actually seem cool.

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