So along comes another vampire story in a time when we seem to be drowning in vampire stories. The question is, what can this one give us that we haven’t been given a few dozen times already. The answer, unfortunately, is “not much”.
BYZANTIUM is about mother and daughter sucrients (fancy word for vampires) posing as sisters. Clara (Gemma Arteton) poses as a prostitute, earning money to keep them afloat in whatever manner best suits the situation. Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) was turned at age sixteen, so it’s her lot to ever appear as a student and not arise suspicion. While they both kill when necessary, Eleanor has turned into something of an Angel of Mercy – taking the lives of people who are infirmed and ready to shuffle off this mortal coil. These people, one could say, are inviting death. As we see them try to settle into a life in a seaside town, we’re told how they were born into darkness, and what it is that got them this far.
The film is a beautiful mess. It is visually rich and includes some neat twists on the classic genre tropes, unfortunately it is also wickedly blunt on too many occasions. The worst offender of this exercise in obviousness is Eleanor’s dialogue, where she has to underline every sentence with a second sentence of unnecessary explanation. Case in point, a moment when she sits at a grand piano and begins playing a classical piece with ease. When asked how she is able to play from memory she says “I don’t forget anything. It’s my curse” (Because she’s a vampire. Get it?). Its unfortunate since a little more grace would have really given the film a better overall effect.
At least the film comes armed with a handsome aesthetic. The titular hotel the film is set in provides an old-world touch to the proceedings, with its hand-operated, gatefront elevator going to good use. The hotel is a distant second though to the island on which the vampires of BYZANTIUM are turned. Not only is it such a unique vision for the whole mythology – one I’ve never heard of in a vampire story before – but its key elements of a cave and a waterfall are indelible. They go a little too far with the waterfall at one point (Clara basks in it in a rapturous state), but it doesn’t take away from their visual prowess.
BYZANTIUM is so damned close in so many ways, that I’m disappointed that I feel disappointed. Had the film been given just a bit more forward momentum, or for that matter assumed that its audience had seen a vampire film before, it might have had something. Instead, it spends a lot of time on a badly broken narrative, and dressing up schlock in elegance.