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I think it’s fair to say the vampire movie has been done to death and so when something original comes around in the genre its well worth a look. The first Twilight movie is not that bad in truth but the last time I really enjoyed the genre was Timur Bekmambetov’s highly inventive Russian treat Night Watch, a film all movie fans should see, subtitles or not. I wouldn’t say Byzantium is up there with the best vampire movies made but it certainly has some new ideas. Who else but director Neil Jordan would base their vampire screenplay on life in contemporary Clacton! You must have led a pretty grim life as an immortal bloodsucker if you end up marooned in Nigel Farage’s manner.
Eleanor: My story can never be told. I write it over and over, wherever we find shelter. I write of what I cannot speak: the truth. I write all I know of it, and then I throw those pages to the wind. Maybe the birds can read it.
We meet 17-year-old Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) and her super sexy mother Clara (Gemma Arterton), packing their bags for yet another quick getaway from yet another grim south coast seaside town. Clara sells her sexuality and body to make money whilst Eleanor is more introspective and prefers to be alone with her music and thoughts. But they are no ordinary mother and daughter, both vampires, at least two centuries old and immortal. But they weren’t always the undead that feeds off human blood, Clara is writing her story – that’s narrated – of how they came to be, a story that can not be told to mere mortals.
Pitching up in dreary Clacton they seduce Noel (Daniel Mays), a depressed forty-year-old mourning the loss of his mom, now living alone in the families dilapidated bed and breakfast hotel. For Eleanor this is an ideal place to start a bordello, which she does, Noel well and truly under her thumb. Clara spends her days seeking solace, until she meets earnest and floppy fringed 18-year-old Frank (Caleb Landry Jones). She soon feels love for the mere mortal and knows it’s these emotions that she longs for most and so decides to reveal her secret to him, which will free her, if he believes it, but also endanger him. And its not just Gareth she is telling her life story of being a vampire to, throwing the pages to the wind for anyone who cares to read it. This is simply not allowed in vampire law.
Through increasing flashback their lives are filled out and more menace added to the story, other vampires from the brotherhood in pursuit of them through time, Darvell (Sam Riley) and the menacing Werner (Thure Lindhardt) particularly keen to speak to them. It seems they have upset the balance somehow and must be held accountable as the body count rises and the innocent blood flows.
Although a little cliché at times with the old blood sucking staples aplenty it’s probably one of the more authentic vampire movies of late, if you can ever be authentic around horror mythology. Jordan’s vampires have no problem with the light (Bram Stoker agrees) and if they did live forever then they would be amongst us now. And to survive the way they do they would have to look and behave like us, a neat twist here being the cops who investigate the people they kill are also vampires. It’s a pretty cool idea to base your story in the contemporary British working - class when 90% of these movies always see vampires as some sort of Gothic nobility, velvet suit wearing elite. It makes a lot of sense that they would thrive in the underclass. Its also a great method on how they become vampires in this movie.
The characters and situations sit well amongst the desolate arcades and tarpaulin covered fairground rides of the rain and wind battered south coast locations and that adds a certain energy to things and refreshingly un-Goth. Gemma Arterton is one seriously sexy actress and makes for a likewise voluptuous bloodsucker to Saoirse Ronan’s more traditional and callow lost soul from all that wandering and chemistry between the two. Caleb Landry Jones as Frank looks like he has seen one too many Hammer movies and turned up wearing appropriate attire and perhaps the weakest link as the films jeopardy.
For its $8 million budget it looks more Hollywood than British film although managed just $85,324 in America to date. It’s entertaining and bloody with some early decapitation and spurting arteries, one for Kensington gore fans. But it’s not bloody for the sake of it and the story is engaging with the historic flashback that builds in an intriguing non linear storyline. It’s just an adult well constructed vampire movie the genre really needed.
Mother daughter duo Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) have a secret. They are both 200 year old vampires on the run from the dark brotherhood, whose gift Clara had stolen in order to save herself and her daughter.
When she is discovered, Clara and Eleanor flee to a coastal resort town in hopes of starting a new life. With local Noel (Daniel Mays) under her spell, Clara opens a brothel in his run down hotel Byzantium. But when Eleanor falls for Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), she is torn between keeping her mother's code of secrecy which has kept her alive and the love which she beckons to feel from another.
The movie opens with Eleanor writing and narrating her story as she cannot breathe a word to anyone else which becomes a backbone for the progression of the movie. She tells the tale of her mother's desperate plight to provide and protect her through prostitution as well as the past which Clara tries so hard to forget.
Thematically, the movie is quite sexual, though not explicit. Clara is very much a succubus, luring men with sex and then killing them, subverting their power, whilst Eleanor is a kindred spirit, granting death to those in pain and old age. This contrast of character is strongly portrayed visually and stylistically, from the clothes they wear, their speech and their posture.
Another strong thematic exploration is the relationship between mother and daughter which is extremely strong. How does Eleanor feel about what her mother is doing for a living? The sacrifice which Clara makes to keep Eleanor safe- the brutal means to keep their secret hidden... only to be met with disrespect, ingratitude and disgust, but beneath this is love: they clearly love each other but the way that they show this is intriguingly genuine.
With the first half being rather melodramatic, the second half really picks up when tension forms between mother and daughter. Eleanor, who was brought up in a religious orphanage, yearns to tell the truth and this is also how we, the audience get answers.
Many people will at once question how Clara (looking in her mid-late twenties) could have a daughter who is sixteen and both be vampires. How does the mechanics work? The movie does explain this through flashbacks- whilst not overly convincing- is nonetheless explained. And it is here, on a remote island that we get some of the most breathtaking visuals from the film.
What is also visually strong is the cold washed out colours of the coastal town against the comparatively decadent hotel Byzantium, featured in the iconic and artistic poster for the film.
As the truth unravels, the plot heightens and a chasm is driven between mother and daughter which creates a real ultimatum. Whilst the movie had been rather quiet with a few distinct scenes of tension and gore, the action really pumps up in a thrilling conclusion which brings all the themes explored together for a satisfying finale.
Gemma Arterton- Clara Webb
Saoirse Ronan- Eleanor
Sam Riley- Darvell
Caleb Landry Jones- Frank
Also stars Warren Brown, Daniel Mays and Thure Lindhardt.
Both female leads Arterton and Ronan are fantastic in this movie: bringing completely different characters to the male dominated film. Playing a vamprostitute, Arterton gives ferocious sass and stylishly takes out the men, whilst Ronan in the first half gives a quiet, somewhat inhuman 'Hanna-like' performance (there is even running included), and in the latter, finds her own footing to create an original performance.
The two together have great chemistry and portrays the mother daughter relationship in a genuine and believable way- even though they are vampires, they have issues too!
Neil Jordan, director of 'Interview with a Vampire', returns to the genre with a modernly delicious female-focused take. Led by two stellar actresses, Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan, the exploration of mother daughter relationship is vicariously portrayed. Visually stunning, the washed out setting dashed with ruby red blood and a flicker of sexuality gives it a unique style.
Mis-sold as 'Twilight for Adults', this is an art-house horror which is miles from the teen-vamp-franchise and is definitely worth a watch.
This movie is in very very limited release and I struggled to find a cinema that showed it near me- having to travel all the way into Central London's Whitechapel Genesis cinema. Apart from me and my friend, there was only one other person at the screening I went to... so maybe best to wait for it to be on DVD.
In this day and age when vampires of fiction are all-powerful, untouchable creatures, it's undeniably refreshing to have a more human spin on the ever popular genre. Plus it's an extra bonus point to not have to endure a cringe inducing love subplot between an immortal and a mortal - what we get here is something entirely different - a more patient, slow-burning approach to telling a familiar but not at all predictable story of supernatural beings we can't ever stop hearing about no matter what.
Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) is sixteen forever. She's a vampire, and is not allowed to discuss with anyone her little secret - her mother Clara (Gemma Arterton) forbids this. So she must settle for writing down her thoughts and feelings as many diary entries, then throwing them away into the wind or to the sea. For reasons unknown to her, Ella and Clara are constantly on the run. Whilst providing the best for her daughter in the only way she knows how, by pleasing men, Clara is a loyal although at times, flawed protector, as with any parent.
Turns out the only reason these two are the most wanted vampires is because they're female. The vampire society puts a lot of importance on the word "brotherhood" and allows no women into their group. Since Clara and Eleanor were both created against the rules, they need to be removed. This explains Clara's paranoia, and the need to isolate themselves wherever they go, whereas with Eleanor, who is kept in the dark about most of this, does not understand her mother's incessant need to shut everyone out of their lives.
For the past couple of centuries, Eleanor seems to have been a good, disciplined girl, quietly going about her life, obeying her mother's orders, although with varying degrees of understanding. Now she's finally getting the courage to stand up for herself and rebel (and about time, too). She meets a boy who is intrigued by her presence, she joins some college classes, and soon the secrets start spilling themselves. Most notably when her assignment is to write an essay about who she is. Now isn't that a recipe for disaster? And as she tells her story, we are shown, in many flashback sequences, just how everything came about.
Director Neil Jordan takes his time to give us the full picture - he knows how much to tell when, and more importantly, he knows when to make the cuts - leaving the narrative hanging. He doesn't give anything away too easily, and with this air of mystery and intrigue, this becomes a vampire film that's far more entertaining and smarter than the norm. The two parallel plot-lines here serve to further the two females' nature. One focuses on Clara, the other on Eleanor, almost treating them separately at times.
Arterton is absolutely spot-on as Clara; and winding the clock back to the 19th Century, we see the long, complicated and painful process she had to endure to end up where she is now - and even as an immortal she's failed to find peace. Arterton is loud, forceful and assertive, and has no problem tapping into the seductive side of her role given some very suggestive items of clothing she wears. But underneath all the confidence and tough exterior, there's an obvious inner layer of weakness and vulnerability. With no allies she is on her own to look out for her family. Very little kindness was shown to her all her life, so we understand her need for utmost control.
In contrast to her mother, Eleanor is a quieter, more restrained presence on the screen, one that Ronan captures beautifully. She's sheltered and naïve, qualities that make her budding, awkward romance with Frank (Caleb Landry Jones - who looks so pale he could well be a vampire himself) all the more sweet and charming. Over the years she too has found her specific ways to cope with her need for feeding, one that involves a more humane, sensitive approach. It's fascinating to navigate in their world, where vampires are incredibly similar to humans and really not a lot sets them apart. They can walk during daylight, their reflections are shown in mirrors, they run like us, fight like us and most of the supernatural qualities have been stripped from them in this universe, and this makes for a heck of a lot more interesting watch.
There are several under-developed characters as the film is interested solely in Arterton and Ronan. Sam Riley in particular deserves more screen time given his significance to the overall plot, and his participation could have been enhanced for a more exciting finale that disappointingly ends on a bit of a flat note. He is a part of a group that is trying to track down the only two female vampires in this world, although Riley's character's intentions seem to differ from what others have in mind. Jonny Lee Miller lends his talent to play the vile antagonist full of nasty qualities, whereas Daniel Mays puts in an appearance to add a touch of comedy to the otherwise overall serious tone.
Telling a gothic story, the set-up is perfect, locating the characters in the dark, damp seaside of England, and as it travels back and forth between the past and present, the various details to set design remains convincing throughout. The sun hardly ever shines, there's a lot of smoke and fog, very traditional for the genre, but as it comes together, they all fit nicely with the story it's trying to tell. There are some incredibly haunting yet beautiful images that are captured, most notably one that explains how vampires in this world are created in the first place.
Because of its generally glum tone as well as its slow-burning approach to tell its dense story, there will be limited appeal to young adults looking for a quick action fix. In fact there is very little in the way of fast, kinetic showdowns, but the film more than makes up for this in its unique way of portraying its vampires and their relationships with the rest of the world.