The agony and ecstasy of the 200-year-old teenager: ‘Byzantium’ thoughtfully delves into the lives of two bloodsuckers

July 11, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
July 11, 2014

In an odd way, Byzantium, the stylish 2012 feature directed by Neil Jordan, is a coming of age tale about 200-year-old vampires.

One of the pleasing things about the movie is that it doesn’t rush to clarify the relationship between its two main characters. Are the bloodsucking Eleanor Webb and Clara Webb friends or sisters? Are they lovers? Theirs turns out to be a relationship literally unlike any other in history. But the script, which screenwriter Moira Buffini based on her original stage play, takes its time explaining the specifics.

The story is set in motion when a man who seems to understand Clara’s unusual nature strong-arms his way into the flat that Clara (Gemma Arterton) shares with Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) in a run-down English housing project. Clara responds violently, and the pair flee in the middle of the — presumably autumn — night to a quiet coastal resort town in what I take to be Ireland.

While Clara quickly and efficiently begins plying a familiar trade, prostitution, Eleanor wanders into an assisted-living facility for the elderly, where she draws the interest of an awkward young worker named Frank (Caleb Landry Jones, who to my surprise turns out to be an American actor).

While Eleanor coolly attempts to fend off Frank’s gentle but unwelcome attention, Clara quickly insinuates herself into the life and home of Noel (Daniel Mays), the lonely owner of a bankrupt hotel-cum-boarding house called the Byzantium. By the end of their first full day in the resort town, Clara and Eleanor ensconce themselves in Noel’s large, lavish but ill-kempt property.

This new living situation is comfortable enough, at least superficially. Eleanor (and the audience) may see Noel as a loser and a creep, but he seems too timid to pose much of a threat to her. But the women are haunted by the past, which has a grip on them that neither fully understands.

At first, trouble surfaces as familiar, oft-repeated arguments between the two women, who are far older than they appear to be. The strife just may be exacerbated by Eleanor’s disturbing visions of the past, for Clara appears to have brought the pair back to the same community where they lived two centuries previously, prior to becoming vampires.

Eleanor’s unease, and her growing fascination with tender young Frank, prompt the increasingly rebellious adolescent to break a code of her and Clara’s kind: She reveals their history to her gangly new friend. The disclosure has ripples that Eleanor — who, for all her experience and even jadedness, is still quite naïve in some ways — simply can’t anticipate.

The consequences affect the instructor to whom Frank gives Eleanor’s account as well as the counselor whom in turn is shown the memoir by the teacher. Noel is also caught in the disastrous domino effect.

Along the way, we also learn about the origins of the Webbs, who are being stalked by two sinister figures. One of them, it turns out, is connected to a long-ago part of Clara’s life.

The 19th-century origin story of the Webbs is shaped by a rivalry between two British naval officers: The callow Ruthven (Jonny Lee Miller) and Darvell (Sam Riley), his wealthy, ailing underling. Darvell is initially earnest and kind, while Ruthven (pronounced riven) is dastardly. At a crucial moment, however, the audience’s sympathies flip as the narrative engenders sympathy — or perhaps pity is a better term — for Ruthven. As the story evolves, our assessment of these people changes at least once more.

To the movie’s credit, no one character seems purely sympathetic. Clara is thoroughly ruthless and generally amoral, but these flaws are redeemed, at least in part, by two factors: the cruelty she endured as a young mortal and her fierce protectiveness toward Eleanor. Eleanor, by contrast, is usually gentle with her potential victims, who are invariably old and eager for death, but frequently contemptuous of Clara, her great benefactor.

The movie, which has apparently reworked Buffini’s play to heighten dramatic and cinematic potential, bases some of its vampire lore on Irish mythology. The picture never gets very explicit about the undead creatures’ biology; their thumbnails grow into sharpened claws when it’s time to feed, but otherwise there are no outward physical differences between them and humans.

The movie implies that vampires are immune to many if not all physical ailments — how else does one live for two centuries, after all? — and there’s a suggestion that they are physically stronger than typical people. The method by which people are turned in to vampires involves an unspecified but unsettling mysticism, one particular anointed site, a flock of birds (not bats, strangely), and cascading waterfalls that suddenly transubstantiate into torrents of blood at the moment of conversion. (This last special effect represents a rare visual miscue in a movie that otherwise looks beautiful.)

Byzantium is not a gore-fest, but it is a horror movie. It’s full of creepy moments; the viewer frequently worries that Clara or Eleanor may be about to visit grievous harm upon a more-or-less sympathetic character. Sometimes, when the two women argue, the potential victim is one of the leads, and the injury that may be done is emotional rather than physical. Also, the amount of violence — and blood — ramps up as the movie approaches its climax. Be aware that there are two decapitations.

In other words, this film isn’t for all viewers. (Neither is The Crying Game, an earlier Neil Jordan effort that I saw in unusual circumstances.) But those who watch Byzantium will find an intelligent drama that offers a new spin on vampires.

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