FlixChatter Review: Neil Jordan’s vampire drama Byzantium (2012)

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Before the vampire craze began started by a certain YA novel, Neil Jordan‘s made an epic vampire drama Interview With The Vampire in 1994. Nearly two decades later, the Irish filmmaker returned to the popular genre with another unconventional tale of the fanged one. Except that the vampires in this story don’t have fangs, instead they have sharp thumb nail that extends when they are ready to feed. The story is based on a play by Moira Buffini, who also wrote the screenplay.

The film begins with a schoolgirl, Eleanor, saying in voice over that ‘my story can never be told.’ She constantly writes in her journal, writing her life story she can’t share with anyone. The melancholy scene is contrasted with that of a sexy prostitute, Clara, tantalizing a client at a dingy club. It’s the oldest profession in the world, one she has held on for more than two centuries. The scene then turns into a big foot chase scene that ends in a bloody, grizzly murder. That incident forces Clara and her daughter Eleanor to move to another town once again. By that point I was hooked and I’m on for the ride to find out just who these two creatures are and why they are constantly on the run.

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At the core of Byzantium is a mother and daughter story, albeit a decidedly-unusual one. Gemma Arterton and Saiorse Ronan made for quite an intriguing pair as mother and daughter. Clara represents the ruthless survivor with a personal vendetta against men preying on vulnerable women. So yeah, there’s a not-too-subtle feminism commentary here. Meanwhile, Eleanor represents innocence and benevolence, preying on those she deems ‘ready’ to die. So they certainly have a very different approach to feeding human blood. The title itself initially refers to a hotel that somehow becomes a place of refuge to them, but the purported ties to the Byzantine Empire is rather forced.

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I’ve been wanting to see it for some time, but crushing on Sam Riley compelled me to rent it straight away and I’m glad I did. Sam’s part isn’t a big one but he played a dual character that plays a key role in Clara’s dark past. His scenes as a naval officer, along with a grimy Jonny Lee Miller, are some of the most compelling aspects of the film. The film takes place mostly on modern day, with extended flashback scenes that explain the origin story of Clara’s vampirism. It takes a bit too long to get to that part however, with hints peppered throughout and one secret is peeled after another in a leisurely manner. Rather indulgent perhaps, but I think the movie rewards your patience and for me, there’s enough going for it to keep me engrossed.

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The two female protagonists are fantastic in this. It’s perhaps my favorite role I’ve seen Arterton’s done so far, and though Ronan’s done superior work since, I still count this as one of her best work. Arterton’s absolutely ravishing as Clara, she uses her sensuality and seductive allure, combined with a convincing motherly love. Meanwhile Ronan’s forlorn demeanor is quietly eerie and she delivers one long monologue about who she really is that gives me quite the chills. A bit of trivia: Ronan did an intense 12-week crash course in piano lessons to be able to play the complicated Beethoven piano sonata in this film. She certainly is a dedicated performer.

I’ve seen this film twice in the past three months, and I must say I find this strangely mesmerizing. But the flaws keep this from being a truly great movie, as it doesn’t quite live up to its original concept. I still applaud it for that though, as originality is such a rarity these days in a world full of sequels and reboots. I could do without some of the scenes, i.e. the odd and pointless classroom scene with an uncredited Tom Hollander. I’m also not too fond of Caleb Landry Jones‘ casting as Eleanor’s love interest, thus their love story isn’t as appealing as it could’ve been.

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As with a mythology story, certain aspects sometimes don’t get explained very well. In this case it’s in regards to Clara’s relentless pursuers, who’s later revealed as part of the so-called Brotherhood. We don’t know much about it, but what we do know is that the ancient organization forbids women to join, and they’re ruthlessly strict about those who’ve broken that rule. It helps that there’s a Byzantium Wiki to devour after watching the movie, and I think the more I read about it, the more I appreciate the story.

Eternal life will only come to those prepared to die.

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So despite the flaws, I’d say this movie is well worth a watch. I always appreciate an unorthodox vampire story, be it comedic (What We Do in the Shadows) or what Neil Jordan‘s created so far. I’d say this film is more of a drama than a full-on horror film, which is just the way I like it. There are gory and bloody scenes, but it’s few and far between.

Stylistically, the film is wonderful to look at. Set in rundown coastal setting in the UK and Ireland, it’s an appropriately atmospheric and broodingly-mysterious for a vampire tale. Acclaimed cinematographer Sean Bobbitt added an occasional jolts of color, so it’s not all doom and gloom. It has an eerie, ethereal and mysteriously romantic feel to it, but not grotesque. The scene in the spooky island with its blood waterfall is especially striking. I also like the classically-tinged, serene-sounding score by Javier Navarrete that perfectly complements the tone of the film.

I like the ending as well, which actually is surprisingly hopeful. This is the kind of film that lingers long after the end credits. It certainly make me think about the concept and these bloodsuckers *ethics* if you will, that I never thought about before. Any good stories about monsters and mythical creatures ought to have humanistic elements and this one certainly does. Just like Jordan’s previous film Ondine, there’s more than meets the eye and has deeper significance than what the trailer suggests. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s quite mesmerizing and I now count this as one of my favorite vampire films.

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Have you seen ‘Byzanthium’? Either way, I’d love to hear what you think!

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30 thoughts on “FlixChatter Review: Neil Jordan’s vampire drama Byzantium (2012)

  1. Caught up to this one last year and got a kick out of it. Great cast, too. Love the way Neil Jordan looks upon horror genres. Take a gander upon his werewolf movie, The Company of Wolves (1984). They’re not what you’d expect.

  2. I haven’t any of Jordan’s films since The Brave One almost ten years ago! I might give this one a watch someday. If you like unconventional vampire movies Ruth, you should definitely check out Let The Right One In and the excellent remake Let Me In; great performances by the young actors and it’s not really horror film.

    1. Was The Brave One w/ Jodie Foster? Some people mentioned Let The Right One In & Let Me In in their reviews of Byzantium, that sounds like right up my alley. This one is rather slow Ted, and I know some critics complain about that. I don’t mind it for the most part, as I really like the two female leads.

        1. Oh really? Hmmm, I might give it a shot then. Interesting to see Foster in that role, sounds like something more tailored for I dunno, Sigourney Weaver? But then again it’s Neil Jordan, he usually goes for unconventional casting.

    1. Saoirse is excellent as always, but Gemma was quite a revelation as I’ve never seen her in such a compelling role. It’s a pretty physical/sexual role but yet there’s a certain layers to the characters. THIS is how one does a vampire film (unlike you know what), too bad it didn’t do well.

    1. Yay! Glad you like this one too, I think some people think it’s too slow but the more I watch it the more I like it. I even feel like I should’ve given it a higher rating. I was never impressed w/ Arterton until this one, but I think she just needed the right role for her.

  3. I enjoyed it mainly for the performances and the visuals. I agree that some scenes could be cut and I felt that the ending was slightly contrived. Overall I liked it and Ronan is always excellent. Great review Ruth.

    1. Hi Mikey! I presume you’re referring to the finale where Darvell cut off the head of Savile instead of Clara’s? I don’t see that as contrived, ’cause Darvell’s been sympathetic to Clara & Eleanor for some time so perhaps he changed his mind at the last minute. I wish Darvell & Clara had more screen time 😛 In any case I’m glad you enjoyed this one, and yes Ronan is always excellent indeed.

  4. Doh! On my site I replied to your comment asking if you were referring to Only Lovers Left Alive. Bad me. Haven’t seen this one, yet, but it’s been sitting on ‘My List’ on Netflix for quite a while. Need to go ahead and watch it.

    1. Funny, I talked to my co-worker about this film and he also mentioned ‘Only Lovers Left Alive.’ I’m certainly curious to see that one ’cause I adore Tilda Swinton. I think you’d like this one Dell, for one thing Gemma Arterton is VERY easy on the eyes in this film.

      1. Only Lovers Left Alive is great. I enjoyed Bzantium but really didn’t quite understand the ending to this one. I did like it slightly more than Interview with the Vampire. It’s cool that SaoriseRonan practiced piano for that long

        1. Hmmm, ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’ seems to get a mixed reaction. But I do love Tilda and the premise sounds bonkers (in a good way), I mean rock ‘n roll vampires, heck yeah! Glad you enjoyed Byzantium. I have no issues w/ the ending actually, seems natural to me that Eleanor wants the boy she loves to share a lifetime w/ him. And yeah, that piano scene is pretty cool.

    1. I haven’t seen Tess of the d’Urbervilles yet, but I was just thinking how Gemma looks wonderful in period costumes. Glad you enjoyed this one.

      Btw, interesting you said on your post that you don’t like period dramas about royals. I’m the opposite, I mean the royals’ lives are ripe for great drama, tragedy and intrigue, and the fact that most of the events did happen at some point made it even more interesting to me. Makes learning history so much more fun! 🙂

      1. Haha yeah, like I said, even I think it’s odd that I don’t usually like them. There are some exceptions though! I really liked Mrs. Brown and Royal Affair among a few others. I might be willing to give White Queen a chance, but I’d have to get through my current crazy long list of must-watch period dramas first 😉

        1. I LOVE Mrs Brown too, still need to see Royal Affair. Which period dramas are on your top watch list right now? I’m hoping that War & Peace will arrive on Netflix or Amazon Prime as I’d love to watch that but not willing to shell out $15 bucks for an entire season.

          1. I’m wanting to finish up Underground, Mr. Selfridge and The Musketeers. There’s also this period drama on Netflix called Grand Hotel that I’m only two episodes into but really want to finish. It’s in Spanish but has subtitles. Also, season two of Indian Summers, and I still haven’t seen Pride & Prejudice and Zombies. I’m sure there’s more that I’m forgetting!

            1. Ok I have a confession. I actually tried to watch Grand Hotel as the premise appealed to me. But for whatever reason I couldn’t get past the Spanish. I mean I don’t mind watching French or German series but I find the Spanish language somewhat um, distracting? I don’t know why as I have watched other Spanish films like Pan’s Labyrinth, Motorcycle Diaries, etc but never a period drama. Well, I finally finished The White Queen and I loved it, more than The Tudors as it’s not overly sexualized. I hope to see the sequel soon!

  5. I have been meaning to watch this for years, I really think I need to catch up with the more recent vampire films, I always hear decent/good things about this one. Glad to see you enjoyed it, even though Riley only had a small part to play 😉

    1. It’s a good one Zoë! I love the fact that it’s more from the female perspectives and it’s not a strictly romance story either, perhaps more of a survival tale. Riley’s very good here in his brief scenes, it’s an integral part to the story. I could even see a sequel to this 😉

  6. Unfortunately I can’t agree with you on Arterton. She is a terrible actress and no better in this, however the concept of this story was pretty cool and I liked the dark atmosphere that was created.

    1. Not a fan of Gemma eh? Yeah I think she’s not as strong an actress compared to Saoirse but I like her in this one. I really like the concept of the story and the atmosphere, this is how vampire movies should be done, not too grotesque like a slasher flick but also not silly, clichéd like Twilight!

    1. Yes you are absolutely right about Jordan’s ability in handling a folklore. I love movies that sort of turns a certain genre upside down. As w/ Ondine, I thought initially it’s a fantasy film about mermaids but it’s actually not about that at all. Gemma’s got such a gorgeous figure, both she and Saoirse’s performances are wonderful.

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