Overlooked & Underseen: Byzantium (2013)
Byzantium sat in our Netflix watchlist queue for over a year. We just kept bypassing it for something else. Finally, my husband said we needed to watch it just to get it off the list. I had no idea what it was or who was in it. I didn’t even realize it was a Neil Jordan movie until the credits rolled. I almost didn’t watch it but I’m glad a did because I really dug it. I rewatched it again recently and decided it would be the subject of this week’s column. It should only take reading the words “Saoirse Ronan vampire movie” to get you to want to watch this.
Eleanor Webb (Ronan) is 16 and moody as fuck. We first meet her ripping pages from her journal, crumpling them up and throwing them off a balcony. Eleanor has reason to be moody, though. Not just because she’s 16 but also because she’s a vampire. Or rather, a soucriant (look it up). She sees herself as an angel of mercy, she only takes those who are ready for death. Eleanor has a sister/legal guardian named Clara (Gemma Arterton, Quantum of Solace). Clara is the complete opposite of Eleanor. She is lively, feisty, and ready to throw down if need be; while Eleanor is quiet and brooding. Clara has been stripping to pay the bills but something happens with a customer that makes the two women torch their flat before getting the hell out of town. In the burned out apartment, we meet a couple of men investigating the fire—they are looking for the recently departed women.
Clara and Eleanor end up in a seaside town that they forgot to bomb (thanks, Morrissey!). There, Clara picks up a john who just happens to have a guest house/hotel on the seafront called Byzantium. She convinces him to let her turn it into a brothel where she’ll be the madam. Eleanor doesn’t like the way Clara gets their money but moves into the hotel nonetheless. While exploring the town, Eleanor meets Frank (Caleb Landry Jones, Get Out) and they are both attracted to each other. Frank gets Eleanor to enroll in the college he goes to and in one of their classes, the instructor, Kevin (played by Tom Hollander, in an uncredited role) assigns them an essay to be titled “I Am” where they can write anything about themselves as long as it’s the truth. Eleanor writes her essay and reveals what she and Clara really are and how they’ve been alive for over 200 years. As shit hits the fan, the two investigators show up at the hotel trying to arrest the women and it all goes from bad to worse.
The movie flashes back and forth between the present and the early 1800s where it tells how Clara and Eleanor become vampires. In the flashbacks, we meet a couple of officers who are involved in the lives of the women, Captain Ruthven (Jonny Lee Miller, Trainspotting) and Midshipman Darvell (Sam Riley, Control). Ruthven is a scumbag of the highest order, the opposite of Darvell. We learn there is a brotherhood of soucriants who believe it is their job to dole out “justice” to those who have got away with something. The members of this brotherhood will hunt down and destroy any member of their order who disobeys any of their commandments. They already had it in for Clara because there aren’t supposed to be any women in the brotherhood. They believe only men are capable of doing the job. They’ve been looking for Clara and Eleanor across two centuries and will stop at nothing to destroy them.
There’s a lot going on here in this vampire movie that doesn’t seem all that particularly vampirey. Yes, I said vampirey. It’s not your typical Hammer/Dracula fare. For one, the main focus is women. Eleanor and Clara are already treated like second class citizens without throwing the whole blood sucking things into it. They’re even looked down upon by the brotherhood. Well, not just looked down upon because they are out to destroy the women. Also, the movie doesn’t hold itself to all of the vampire rules we’ve come to expect. For instance, sunlight doesn’t bother them. They also can’t create another vampire from biting someone. In order to become one, you have to visit this stone “hut” that’s on a remote island. Yeah, I know it sounds silly but, boy, those scenes out on that island are some of the best in the film. There’s a gorgeous scene where a newly turned Clara is letting the waterfalls of blood cascade down over her. The whole movie is beautifully shot by Sean Bobbitt (Shame, 12 Years a Slave). Shout out to the town of Hastings where some of the film was shot. I’ve spent a lot of time there over the years. In the film, when Eleanor and Clara begin to descend a hill into the town, I said “That’s Hastings!”
Ronan and Arterton are both great in this. I would watch Ronan in anything. With each new role, she continues to prove that she can do it all. I buy her as an assassin in Hanna, I buy her as an American teenager in Lady Bird, and I buy her in this film as a vampire. I’m not as familiar with Arterton’s work but here she’s a force trying to protect her charge at all costs. Landry Jones continues to impress in these supporting roles. He was frightening as hell in Get Out. I do wonder why my crush, Tom Hollander, chose to be uncredited. I was pleasantly surprised when he popped up on screen because he’s great in everything he does.
I’ve featured Neil Jordan once before in this column by writing about The Butcher Boy (1997). I had toyed with the idea of writing about The Company of Wolves (1984) but a rewatch of that put me right off the idea because, well, it just isn’t good. In looking over his oeuvre, I’m sorta hit or miss with his stuff. Movies like Mona Lisa, The Crying Game, and The End of the Affair are great. Interview with the Vampire, High Spirits, and We’re No Angels… not so much. He seems to have spent some time in director’s jail, or if not jail, certainly a half way house. He’s back again, though, as Greta opened this past weekend.