This vision of the immortal has more of an Irish fable quality, complete with swirling mists, choppy seas and the grit of hard lives.
The movie's stars are haunting as well.
From the lyrical and deeply sad journal entries of 16-year-old Eleanor (Ronan) to the tricks turned by Clara (Arterton) to keep money in their pockets, there is real suffering in their existence both before and after that dark gift. As one expects from a species that survives on the blood of others, there is a good deal of gore from waterfalls that run blood-red every time a new vampire is made to the necks that are pierced when they feed.
But there is real humanity in "Byzantium" too. Screenwriter Moira Buffini brings a worldly authenticity to the characters in a way that those most famous of movie vampires, "Twilight's" charmed Bella and Edward, never did. In tone, "Byzantium" is closer to the darkness of her script for director Cary Fukunaga's edgy 2011 reimagining of
As the film opens, Eleanor seems like any other angst-filled teenage romantic, putting her secrets and lies in a journal, then tearing the pages out and tossing them to the wind. That soon changes when an old man picks up a page and begins reading. The conversation with Eleanor that follows sets out the rules these particular vampires follow as well as the meditative sensibilities of the film.
In addition to the complications of daily life, Clara and Eleanor are being hunted by older vampires determined to stamp out all female immortals. That chase quickly moves the action from a city to a far more photogenic seaside town. They soon set up camp in a failed but elegant old hotel. Its name, Byzantium, is spelled out in neon and Noel (
Since immortality is a central conceit, the conflicts Clara and Eleanor face are from the distant past and the present. Though we learn through flashbacks that Eleanor and her mum have been around a few centuries, the teenager is only now amid a coming-of-age crisis. It's because she meets a boy.
Frank, played by an excellent Caleb Landry Jones, is moody and dying, exactly Eleanor's type. Though she resists, she is drawn to him. A creative writing class seals the deal. The questions for vampires and filmmakers alike is how to grapple with conflicting love and loyalty issues, and this is where the film spends its time.
Like most of Jordan's work, "Byzantium" is saturated with mood and beautifully shot. Sean Bobbitt, who handles the cinematography, is building quite a résumé for shooting dark evocatively — 2011's
For the director, who has been busy writing and directing the intrigues of Jeremy Irons and
For Ronan, the film comes at an especially good time.
After several so-so roles — most recently the
As with Eleanor, "Byzantium's" appeal is not so much its bite, which could use some refining, but the emotional journey its undead take. In Jordan's hands, the vampires are so very human.
MPAA rating: R for bloody violence, sexual content and language
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
Playing: Landmark Theater, West Los Angeles