Byzantium, directed by Neil Jordan, is a vampire thriller that offers so much more dramatic depth than is usual in the genre. This is Jordan’s second vampire movie, his first being 1994’s Interview with the Vampire, starring Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt.
The director’s fascination with the genre may have a lot to with the fact that Bram Stoker, the creator of Dracula, was from Dublin, as Jordan’s most recent novel Mistaken (2011) features the former home of the famous gothic author.
In Interview with the Vampire Bard Pitt’s Louis is asked if Dracula is an accurate depiction of the vampire life. “The feverish dreams of a demented Irishman,” he replies.
The attraction and strength of Byzantium is that it’s so much more than just another vampire movie.
When arguably Ireland’s greatest film director, known for Mona Lisa, Michael Collins, The Crying Game and more, turns to horror and fantasy for inspiration, we expect more than a gory bite fest. And indeed we get more, as Byzantium bleeds more class and insights than the average genre flick. The attraction and strength of Byzantium is that it’s so much more than just another vampire movie.
Jordan himself said in a salon.com interview, “I’m very interested in the burden of memories which people carry from one generation to another. Imagine how much more of a burden that must be for creatures who live for centuries.”
So we see another attraction of the vampire genre for Jordan – vampire as a metaphor for human life and with more dramatic bite.
Jordan’s direction helps get two great performances from both Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan, playing mother and daughter fleeing their past from century to century, who end up in run down Hastings on the southern English coast.
Eleanor (Ronan) is desperate to tell the truth about herself and her mother (Arterton) and that gives us one of the main elements of dramatic tension in the film, more even than the literal pursuit of demons.
Arterton in both modern-day and flashback may look and dress like a whore, but she’s the strongest most determined character in the story, who takes control when their past and present threatens their secret and continued existence.
Would the film have worked just as well without the vampire elements? They don’t always seem crucial to the story, and the historical flashbacks, sometimes featuring the Trinity College library, can seem grafted on and in need of special effects well beyond the budget.
I met and interviewed Neil Jordan at the height of his post-Crying Game Hollywood fame on a book tour in London, and he’s a man with an incisive grasp of the art of cinema and dramatic storytelling.
Here he tells us that vampires are just like us. They get bored from hanging around too long, just like you and I would too.
Jordan, perhaps because of his suburban Dublin upbringing, has a great feeling for seaside towns. Think of Brighton in Mona Lisa. Seaside towns are places where people wait to die, or, like the inhabitants of the Byzantium guesthouse, they’re people on the margins, displaced by accident, birth or financial failure. They hope for more as they wait for death.
You don’t have to be a vampire to get bored with living.