Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Byzantium (UK/IRE, 2013)

Jordan's second vampire film and once again its a serious dissection of undead life, this time around its a young mother and her teenage daughter. At first I did kinda get the impression the film was based on vampires during the 3rd century within the ancient city of Byzantium...which would of been ambitious to say the least, but highly interesting, oh well.

So yes the title of the film actually refers to the hotel where the two homeless vamps shelter. The whole story is set within the town of Hastings, Kent on the south coast of England, didn't get that at first mind you, I thought it was up north somewhere. The two female vampires have lived for over two hundred years and their story originates around the Napoleonic Wars. Ever since that time they have survived on human blood and tried their best not to get noticed, but as time goes by it gets harder.

What is so interesting about this new angle to old vampire lore is females are not allowed to be vampires, yes you heard me. In this universe being an undead nightwalker is reserved for men only and passed on through the ages to chosen males of whom the current vampire takes a shine to, or sees promise in. So its basically like an old boys club. The main female lead (Arterton) steals a chance to become a vampire and of course turns her daughter (Ronan) too...and this is the main crux of the film. They have broken scared ancient laws and are being persued by male vamps who want to destroy the daughter (they accepted the mother on condition she didn't break their law on turning another female).

This is not the only change to vampire folklore that Jordan makes, in order to keep the whole concept fresh and somewhat more realistic or believable there are no fangs here, yes that's right no fangs. All blood letting is through the use of an extending sharp finger nail, sounds weak but it works (unless you break the nail! then what do you do!!?), but they do still drink from the wound as you'd expect.

The way in which vampires are created/born is turned on its head, it involves a scared secret mysterious island where the chosen must travel to (how has no one ever found this place though??). There they must enter a primitive cave/dwelling where their soul is taken. There aren't any crucifixes, garlic, stakes through the heart, coffins or any other cliched horror guff, vampires can be killed like any other regular human, although cutting off the head still seems definitive. Must also point out that sunlight bares no hindrance for vampires in this world, although they do prefer the darkness.

Yet despite these changes, visually the film is very familiar. Elements from Jordan's previous vampire classic 'Interview with the Vampire' can be seen throughout here. The whole story could easily be another chapter from the Anne Rice universe. We see the tale through the eyes of both the mother and the daughter but mainly the mother. Lots of flashbacks from the 18th century depicting what happens to the mother, how she turns, how she has her daughter and the decisions she has to make to protect and turn her daughter, her general quality of life in that era. We also see similar things from the daughters point of view also.

Hadn't really thought that much of Gemma Arterton until now, she really nails her character here. A cocky, confident, cockney female who has clearly grown accustomed to the vampire lifestyle and has no issue in killing men for the good of humanity and to protect herself and her daughter. She was practically born into a world of prostitution and has carried on with the profession all through the ages making her tough. Obviously the femme fatale and eye candy of the film (gotta have a sexy female vamp right?), Arterton is undeniably beautiful and very cute making it hard to not wanna be a vampire alongside her or at least get snuffed out by her hand (if you gotta go).

The daughter is played by Saoirse Ronan and I admit I've never heard of her but she has the kind of looks that make me feel she could end up in a lot of horror flicks. Those kind of striking yet eerie Sissy Spacek looks that work very well in horror and dramatic roles. Her performance here is just as good as Arterton, probably better but you can't really compare as the characters are very different.

The daughter is a somber character, very heartfelt, merciful and sympathetic (yet no cockney accent?), she only takes the lives of elderly people, sick people (although wouldn't that risk her own life? can vampires catch anything from blood in this universe?) people who consent to it, which is nice but I'd imagine that would make life much harder for her. Probably why she dislikes being an immortal bloodsucker and resents her mother for it, the lives they must lead. It doesn't help of course that she falls for a young lad played by Caleb Landry Jones who looks and dresses like a character out of 'Children of the Corn' (hell even that guys name is like something out of an 80's horror, country bumpkin psycho).

The visuals are half and half in that half of the time we are in cloudy rainy Hastings which is kinda depressing, and the other half we are in 18th century Hastings. The 18th century sequences are nicely done, subtle and not overblown with massive CGI land/seascapes, merely the odd galleon out to sea, open countryside and a lot of decent interior sets. Costumes are lavish as you would expect but there isn't much effort on the vampire look, no paleness or glowing eyes, just regular looking people. If you weren't in the know the film could easily be a BBC drama, this is not a big gothic Hollywood production with fancy decadent sets and heroic fight sequences.

Everyone in the film puts in a good performance (including Jonny Lee Miller), that coupled with Jordan's keen artistic eye that encapsulates the typical grimy, gloomy, scuzzy English coastal seaside town against the romantic visuals of 18th century England, makes for a superb dark fantasy tale. Shame it has been somewhat overlooked with a limited release, highly recommended for all fans of the genre.