Byzantium begins with Eleanor Webb (Saoirse Ronan) writing the words “The End.” But for her there is no end. She turned revenant, or vampire, or soucriant—her preferred term, derived from Caribbean folklore—some 200 years ago, and is thus immortal, more or less, cursed to remain forever 16, forever on the cusp of womanhood. A natural storyteller in a film about storytelling, Eleanor is always writing her biography, throwing the pages to the wind, and beginning again. Sometimes a stray page will find itself in the hands of one curious enough to seek out its author. That’s a very dangerous curiosity to exhibit, but Byzantium, adapted by Moira Buffini from her play A Vampire Story, is in part a reminder that stories can be inherently dangerous things.
Director Neil Jordan’s second stab at a vampire story easily trumps its predecessor, 1994’s somewhat dull Interview With the Vampire, starring Tom Cruise. Working from Buffini’s far more cinematic script, Jordan strikes an appealing balance of narration and action, these two forces being embodied by his two protagonists, the melancholy, contemplative Eleanor, whose approach to satisfying her bloodlust typically puts her in the role of an angel of mercy, and Clara (Gemma Arterton), her beguiling, charismatic mother, a less discriminate killer, more pragmatic by both temperament and experience—she was forced into prostitution during the Napoleonic Wars and has kept it up as her go-to source of revenue ever since. Moving back and forth between past and present, between Eleanor’s voice-over narration and Clara’s adventures—the film opens with Clara in arresting lingerie giving a lap dance, busting a nose, being chased and sawing off someone’s head—Byzantium is a sensual gothic about the slippery frontier that separates appetite from need.
The title is drawn from the name of a dilapidated hotel located on a sumptuously gloomy English coast that Clara reopens for business as a brothel, though her enterprise is threatened once she begins to receive visits from some figures from her deep past. Ronan and Arterton are equally superb in their contrasting and complimentary roles, while Jordan deftly negotiates the story’s subtle shifts in tone, heightening atmosphere with weird storybook images of cabbage fields, dazzling scenes seen through mirrors and glass, lyrical spurts of blood, and a minimum of silly looking CG bats.