Neil Jordan's Byzantium emerges just as the recurrent vampire "craze" has started to lower back into its grave, where those popular franchises that capitalized on the trend have either wrapped up or are settling into a formulaic reputation out of the spotlight. Instead of clashing with conventions that everyone knows and relishes, this marks an ideal time for inventive and restrained stories to break the genre's little unspoken rules for something beyond the norm, springboarding off what's familiar for subtler, more human concepts about immortal blood-drinkers in the modern era. It's tough to imagine a more apt director for the job than Jordan, a provocative and entertaining explorer of macabre folklore. What he's assembled in Byzantium is a reservedly mesmerizing and suitably melodramatic examination of eternal life, secrets, and survival through the eyes of two undying women forced to live off human blood, where mythology and brushes with horror merely strengthen its time-sprawling tale.
Making the transition from stage to cinema by playwright/screenwriter Moira Buffini, who recently brought to life the eeriness and melancholy of Jane Eyre in an elegant adaptation, Byzantium tells the conjoined stories of two penniless vampires who have been living together and harboring their secret for over two-hundred years. Clara (Gemma Arterton, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters) serves as the maternal caregiver of the two by working various erotic/carnal jobs to pay their bills, affording her easy opportunities to feed where needed. Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan, Hanna), on the other hand, mostly keeps to piano playing and her journal -- repeatedly writing down her life story -- as she takes casual strolls and minimizes contact with others, finding "nobler" ways of taking blood. Picking up as they're forced to flee their current living situation, the story focuses on how they resourcefully land in a ramshackle English hotel, while Eleanor's need to reveal her history materializes in a concurrent telling of how they became who they are, starting in the 1800s, and why certain people are tracking them down.
Eschewing the boundaries created by other vampire stories, Byzantium deliberately turns common mythology on its head: the absence of fangs and powerlessness of holy relics are implicitly addressed, while sunlight doesn't even factor into Clara and Eleanor's everyday routine. Down to the ritualistic, deeply-personal creation of new vampires, involving a gothic display of metamorphosis amid a cascade of blood and swarming birds, Buffini's script reduces those known conventions into a direct, somber reflection on what it'd be like as an unnatural immortal human who lives off the blood of others and ponders their moral deviance. It also doesn't shy away from the intimacy of loneliness that comes with the supernatural territory, the inability to build lasting relationships and the monstrous desires that surface with simple intimacy and the sight of blood. And when Byzantium actually does brush with conventions, from puncturing veins to invitations into homes, it shrewdly folds them within the story.
The moody photography from Shame and The Place Beyond the Pines cinematographer Sean Bobbitt pursues Eleanor as she struggles to hold onto her secret in the rustic seaside town, while inadvertently (and not so inadvertently) revealing her history through flashbacks and readings of her journal. Here, Neil Jordan's experience with Interview with the Vampire comes into play, where elegiac narration and glimpses at the past -- including quietly haunting scenes of Eleanor stalking visions of her younger pre-vampire self -- craft an antiquated, melancholy portrait of hardship and seclusion surrounding the origin of the two vampires. Clara's roots as a prostitute, her relationship with an oppressive naval captain (Jonny Lee Miller, Trainspotting), and the period's troubles with fatal illnesses and abandoned children linger in a downhearted mood that never really eases up. Restrained (albeit effective) usage of gore and slow-boiling suspense don't offer many visceral delights to compensate for its deliberate meditation on life eternal, very much rendering it into a horror-drama with an emphasis on the drama.
Some might find it odd that Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan spend most of their screen time apart considering the characters' codependence, yet it makes sense due to Clara's pursuits and Eleanor's burgeoning need for distance. Their separate performances are alluring, where they pour their innate strengths into the vampire mold. Arterton brings the fire and desperation she displayed in The Disappearance of Alice Creed to the role, driven by vitality as Clara's project to turn a rundown hotel into a brothel/safe haven echoes her past experience in the world's oldest profession. Conversely, Saoirse Ronan's willowy demeanor and piercing eyes mesh well with a "righteous" vampire coping with her existence, whose virtues and inner turmoil intersect with her appetite and killing techniques. They've not grown sensual, or prideful, or even particularly knowledgeable of the world over their years, instead merely aware of the passage of time, reflected in the actresses' cunning and consistent performances.
Byzantium revolves around the mystery stirring underneath their untellable story, growing complicated as Eleanor builds a reluctant relationship with a terminally ill local college student, Frank (Caleb Landry Jones, X-Men: First Class), whose curiosity suggests he might embrace her true nature. It's something quite harrowing for a two-hundred year old teenager to keep bottled up for so long -- a part of Clara's "code" that they follow for reasons beyond simply keeping a low profile amongst mortals. Eliciting shades of Anne Rice and John Ajvide Lindqvist as it approaches its conclusion, these pieces of Eleanor's history are disclosed in muddled, bluntly poetic expressions of eternal kinship and paternal bonds, reaching an unsurprising yet fitting bittersweet catharsis involving how they obtain the gift of immortality. While Byzantium might not have much new to say about the melancholy born of forever living with one's experiences and trespasses, the unique context of Eleanor's perspective mesmerizes in this gripping vampire curio.
Video and Audio:
Byzantium settles into an eerie, compellingly-lit aesthetic that emphasizes the inclusive seaside atmosphere and sharp blasts of color, framed at 2.35:1 and captured on Arri Alexa digital cameras. Moments in MPI Home Video's 1080p AVC treatment are absolutely breathtaking, such as close-ups on Saoirse Ronan's crisp blue eyes and auburn hair, the intentionally restrained earth tones in boats and against brick walls, and the pop of brash colors in arcades and the iconic hotel's sign. There are other issues at work here that likely go beyond the filmmaker's intents, however, namely black levels that crush out details and some hefty digital grain in darker sequences. Between those extremes lies a suitable and engaging visual presentation, though, filled with nimble contrast balance in more balanced sequences, convincing skin tones against the lower-saturation aesthetic, pops of pastel and vibrant crimson shades, and surprisingly solid contours/details in clothing and set design. It's definitely an attractive treatment.
Eleanor's piano riffs, the scraping of an elongated thumbnail on a wood surface, and atmospheric touches like birds flapping and water rushing craft a dynamic aural design for Byzantium, brought to life here in a nuanced 5.1 Master Audio track. Clarity of sound effects becomes the main attraction here, crisply engaging both the front and surround channels for exceedingly dynamic effects. The persistent, melancholy score ever holds the mood through the track's lucid balance against atmospheric touches; several moments feature Eleanor herself playing for extended periods, and the track's awareness of silence and organic key strokes is really impressive. What's more, the dialogue stays rich and crisp no matter who's speaking, whether it's Saoirse Ronan's lithe tone, Gemma Arterton's lush alto tempo, or the brashness of Jonny Lee Miller's captain. Only a few dialogue moments are touch-and-go with audibility, but altogether MPI really sinks its teeth into the atmospheric audio. English and Spanish subs have been made available.
Aside from a solid mood-setting Trailer (2:07, HD), the only other extras included with Byzantium are a stream of Interviews (1:16:34, SD), starting with director Neil Jordan and progressing through the rest of the primary cast and crew. At over an hour in length, there's a lot to comb through here; however, it's also unorganized and broken up by time cards every minute or two, describing what the interview subject will be discussing next in a way that creates an awkward rhythm. The content rarely gets too deep into detail, but it's intermittently engaging to hear Jordan discuss his fascination with folklore, writer Moira Buffini reveal her enthusiasm over adapting her play for the screen, cinematographer Sean Bobbitt elucidate his perspective on visual storytelling with Byzantium, and both lead actresses Arterton and Ronan reveal their perspective on playing vampires. It'd work better as a tightly-edited "making of" piece, though, broken up by scenes from the film.
Neil Jordan returns to the realm of immortality, blood-sucking, and allegorical folklore with Byzantium, working from Moira Buffini's stage-to-screen script about a vagabond vampire duo who conceal their two-hundred-year secret while taking up residence in an inactive hotel. Horror and suspense are secondary here to dramatic meditations on eternal life and the morality of drinking the blood of humans, along with the intentionally somber depiction of how the two women changed from hopeless mortals to ... well, impoverished yet surviving immortals during the 1800s and beyond. While the film only treads a marginal amount of new ground by depicting a paternal bond between Clara and Eleanor and ditching a lot of traditional vampire lore, its strength can be found in how well it observes a familiar dramatic-horror story through a different pair of eyes (well performed by both Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arterton), poetically handling the idea of cursed vampires with virtues, experiences that haunt them, and the desire for open human companionship. While one might casually notice a few similarities to other "vampire romance" stories in its sympathetic depiction, it's far closer to the likes of Let the Right One In and Jordan's own Interview with the Vampire in tonal and thematic intention. MPI's Blu-ray looks decent and sounds great, and the interviews are worth a look. Highly Recommended.