Cast: Gemma Arterton, Saoirse Ronan, Sam Riley, Daniel Mays, Caleb Landry Jones
Running time: 118mins
The lowdown: Interview with the Vampire director Neil Jordan returns to the plasma drinking undead for a more successful second bite at the bloodsucking legend. Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan channel suitably ethereal, otherworldly and, in Arterton’s case, erotic feminine power as two sisters living on the run in a man’s (under)world, pursued by a shadowy organisation led by Sam Riley. Dark, violent, sexual and with imaginative twists on vampire lore, this is the British Let The Right One In.
The full verdict: Forget Twilight. And forget Neil Jordan’s yawnsome Interview With The Vampire. Byzantium is to the vampire film what the director’s 1984 The Company of Wolves was to the werewolf movie; bold, lyrical, visually arresting, with screenwriter Moira Buffini (adapting her own play) imbuing the whole thing with more than a touch of Angela Carter-esque feminism.
Hitting the ground running (literally), Byzantium throws the audience into a world off-balance, with vampires who can sense OAPs tired of life, a foot pursuit with subtly employed CGI suggesting superhuman abilities and a graphic garroting, pleasantly spurty for a 15 certificate movie.
But, Jordan and Buffini aren’t interested in a From Dusk Til Dawn bloodbath. Instead they draw upon fangtastic screen classics such as Daughters of Darkness and Let The Right One In, plus literary touchstones Carmilla and The Vampyre for the unusual, dreamlike mood, provocatively mixed with the bleak realism of terrifying non-horror London To Brighton (whose plot this echoes).
Arterton’s Clara knows how to employ her physical attributes to survive, beguiling mummy’s boy Noel (Mays) into letting her and little sis stay at his hotel, the grandly named Byzantium. To Clara’s anger, Eleanor cannot resist telling strangers, including sickly teen Frank (Landry Jones), their secret, placing them both in (im)mortal peril.
Those bemoaning Byzantium’s stately pacing as lifeless or boring have clearly never endured a Twilight movie.
Jordan’s movie teems with detail as it spins vampire mythology; in lieu of fangs grows an elongated, thorn-like thumbnail, transformation occurs on a cursed island (gushing waterfalls of blood with every turning) and sunlight does not slay these children of the night, although one confesses, “I prefer the dark”.
19th century flashbacks piece together the reasons forcing the sisters’ transformations (and includes a twist ruined in the trailer), so Byzantium also plays as a superhero origins movie should Buffini want to expand her universe. Clara even states she will use her powers to protect the weak from the villainous in a speech reminiscent of Nolan’s Batman Begins.
And along with the superficial eroticism is the sense of decay in all great vampire stories. Jordan’s washed-out/queasily gaudy visuals and clever, recurring use of red convey the corruption and disease the sisters are fleeing, personified in Johnny Lee Miller’s sleazy turn as a noxious naval officer.
After Hanna, Ronan again demonstrates her skill for playing extraordinary girls failing to live ordinary lives, while Arterton’s flair for gritty vulnerability is better served here than in the similarly supernatural Hansel and Gretel.
Forget recent bloodless retellings of the legend, Byzantium is the full-bodied claret.
This review also appears on skymovies.com