After being discover by a mysterious organisation who is tracking them a pair of female vampires (Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan) flee and end up in a rundown English seaside town. It quickly becomes clear that the duo are mother and daughter (posing as sisters) and they are being hunted by other vampires. Living a lonely existence they do what they can to survive, in Clara (Arterton)’s case them means reverting to the only profession she knows, prostitution. Meanwhile Eleanor (Ronan) forms a bond with young local man Frank (Caleb Landry Jones).
It is interesting that in a month when biggest cinema release (The Great Gatsby) tries to get to grips with a character wishing to relive the past that there is a better film that will go largely unnoticed that has a more telling angle on the same idea. While Clara is always looking to the present and the future trying to forget or deny the past, her daughter Eleanor wallows in the misery of the past and is chained to the limitations of it preventing her from enjoying the present and planning for the future. This is explored in a particularly well handled scene when a character who is clinging on to what life he has mocks Eleanor for the desperation and unhappiness she carries with her into immortality. Like Gatsby, the prison the characters create for themselves is in the lies that live by hiding their past, and like Gatsby the freedom that may come honesty is fraught with danger.
Every vampire story has to create its own “lore” whoever it by Nosferatu’s (1922) invention of sunlight killing vampires (that’s right it wasn’t in Bram Stoker’s novel) or Twilight’s glittering vampires. Other than the drinking of blood Byzantium does away with most conventions of the genre. These vampires don’t even have fangs. They do have another more subtle but equally as effective way of taking their preys blood. They are also more human and vulnerable than we have seen in other vampires in other years, making them more interesting. This vulnerability and humanity along with the tone of the movie and lack of cliché’s helps create a fantasy setting that feels closer to reality and more believable than many other vampires. The difficulty of introducing this lore is handled with the lightest of touches. There is almost no exposition, it is all implied of neatly worked into the plot of the movie. There is a scene where we see Eleanor watching Terence Fisher’s classic Hammer Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), interestingly they show a scene not involving Christopher Lee as the eponymous Count. This is a scene that like the rest of the film is handled supremely well. With a more heavy handed aproch it could have come across as either exposition or could have been an alienation device. These pitfalls are avoided, instead we get to see a nice juxtaposition of the perception of vampires and the reality of them (within the confines of the movie). This is further explored in aspects in reaction to things the characters say for example: When Eleanor explains that she learnt to play piano so well (she plays Beethoven’s complicated Piano Sonata Opus 2, No. 3) by practicing for 200 years, frank brushes it of as it feels like 200 years when you are practicing.
When you see Neil Jordan’s name attached to a vampire movie, you immediately think Interview with the Vampire (1994), while it may have plot similarities, Byzantium feels closer in tone to his earlier film The Company Of Wolves (1984). The story of lonely vampires travelling through a world where they have no place looking for love or acceptance chimes with many other vampire stories. Notably Tony Scott’s movie The Hunger and Mark Burnell’s novel Glittering Savages. Let the Right One In (2008) is certainly (in my opinion) the standout vampire movie of the generation, there are lots of parallels that can be drawn between the movies both in theme and tone. There is something about the seaside in winter that feels bleaker than any other place, this is used to full effect in what is essentially a melodrama of extreme melancholy. The charred remains of Hastings Pier (that burnt down a couple of years ago) give us a foreboding feeling of an inevitable ending. This has a similar effect as the snow and concrete architecture of Let the Right One In
Arterton and Ronan are both perfectly cast and play of each other brilliantly. Arterton is brash, loud and overtly sexual, Ronan is quieter, more reserved and introverted. The difference between the characters forms the crux of the plot and had we not believed in them the whole movie would have fallen flat. As it is the movie works supremely well. It isn’t going to bring any new fans to the vampire genre and those who come with certain expectations will be disappointed. It doesn’t have the action of Blade, the comedy of From Dusk Till Dawn , the sexuality of The Hunger, the horror of Near Dark and it certainly isn’t Twilight, but it does have the tone and style of Let the Right One In. And it is on that level that the movie works, it is beautifully shot, perfectly acted, expertly directed modern gothic melodrama that may just be the antidote to twilight and its imitators. It lacks the depth or clear subtext that enervates some films to greatness, but don’t let that put you off, it is still a very good movie in a genre that hasn’t had many really good movies in recent years.