Review: BYZANTIUM (2012)

Neil Jordan returns to the vampire genre with a visually sumptuous, sub textually dense, century spanning, character driven drama.

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BYZANTIUM (2012)

DIRECTOR: Neil Jordan

CAST: Gemma Arterton, Saoirse Ronan, Caleb Landry Jones

Neil Jordan has been directing feature films for more than thirty years. He’ll be forever known to the horror community as the man who directed INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE (a film both loved and hated within the horror community), but his filmography is reflects a wide variety of topics, themes and genres. He directed the British gangster film MONA LISA, a cult classic in it’s own rite and the sweepingly bizarre, beautiful and memorable THE COMPANY OF WOLVES, which took werewolves and fairy tales in an entirely new direction. He’s also the director of THE CRYING GAME, a film that was highly controversial, almost universally praised and commercially successful in 1992. It was the kind of film that, in discussions of film as they happened in 1992, eclipsed all others.

BYZANTIUM, his latest film, returns him to the subject of vampires. It begins with Clara (played by Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor (played by Saoirse Ronan), two vampires on the run from other vampires bent on the capturing and killing them. As it unfolds, the film becomes something much more than a standard “on the run” film and expands across centuries, laying out the stories of it’s protagonists and just how they came to be hunted. As the director himself notes in TD’s interview, it isn’t a “gore found delight”, and is more akin to LET THE RIGHT ONE IN than FRIGHT NIGHT or THE LOST BOYS. Thankfully, it’s something quite different than the TWILIGHT series too.

BYZANTIUM is a visually appetizing, sub textually rich, well written story told by someone who has reached a point in their career that they don’t need to worry about anything but telling a story as well as they can. Luckily for audiences, BYZANTIUM is a compelling story, with great performances and an intelligent, thoughtful center around which everything else is wound.

Saoirse Ronan is quickly becoming one of the young actresses sought after for every part calling for an actress her age, and her performance here makes it clear exactly why. She is able to portray the paradox of being a 200 year old sixteen year old in a way that’s not only convincing, but complex and believable. Everything she does exudes the kind of lack of confidence that’s common to any intelligent sixteen year old, but in she’s also able to make clear that her lack of sureness isn’t from lack of experience, and instead comes from it’s complete opposite. She’s a haunted character, very sure of the danger she poses to others and that others pose to her, but sincerely devoted to being an agent of something more compassionate than the nature of a vampire suggests.

Gemma Arterton is no less excellent in her role as Clara, whose relationship to Saoirse Ronan’s Eleanor only become clear as the film progresses. Arterton has the same degree of anxiousness, but her character responds to it very differently. She’s a creature of confidence and decisiveness. In many ways, she’s a force of nature, but as the film progresses it becomes clear that even as that might be true, she’s equally shaped by the events that have lead to the point in the story where the film begins. In many ways, she is the creation of the centuries she’s spent being under the power of the men in the story. Her fire, her fight and her fury are all natural reactions that any human being bent on keeping their freedom, autonomy and lives might adopt. Arterton conveys all of her characters confidence, complexity, fear and apprehension as she uses every tool she’s learned in two centuries with an energy that draws the audience to her a little more with each minute she’s on screen. If the film is received well enough, this could be a break out performance for her. Though she’s had her fair share of roles in more high profile films, she’s been cast in the role of “pretty face” in all of them. BYZANTIUM proves that there’s much more to her than just a pretty face.

It should also be noted that the entire supporting cast is phenomenal, not least of which is Caleb Landry Jones. He portrays a character who attempts to get closer to Saoirse Ronan’s Eleanor than she is comfortable with. As usual, he is able to be both vulnerable and hard as steel with utter conviction. Along with Gemma Arterton, Caleb Landry Jones proves that he is one of the most overlooked talents working in film today.

The story is as complex as the characters. Not only does it effortlessly span, contrast and convey 200 years of Clara and Eleanor’s story, it also plays with the audience perception and perspective on the characters along the way. At different points in the story, all of the central characters have their turns as both villain and hero, with all of it being done in a way that is believable, natural and never seems to be reaching for the kind of obvious moral lecture that would end up making it boring and standard. All of it happens in service to and revelation of the story and characters. It lacks the intimacy of a film like LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, but it is no less smart, well written or honest. Instead, it takes a broader perspective and convincingly portrays the complex interconnection of many different sub textual ideas, without ever spoon feeding them to the audience as if they weren’t intelligent enough to understand. One of the things about the film that’s most impressive if that it so perfectly weaves together the ideas that choice and circumstance both shape the individual as they have become who they are in the present. Circumstance may make someone a victim at one period and place in time, choice may also do the same, and circumstance or choice can also make the individual the villain in either. This is in no way a simple story of sinners and saints, heroes and villains. It plays with questions of myth and reality, the power of perspective, and it genuinely cares about the characters it’s telling a story about.

As complex as the story is, it touches on elements that have been part of Neil Jordan’s previous films. Two vampires history across a great length of time, the perception of myth, and unseen/underground cultures have been elements to many of his stories in the past. There’s an even more interesting connection between BYZANTIUM and the film’s Jordan’s made before, the sub text. In many ways, BYZANTIUM seems to almost be the culmination of the themes and sub text he’s been interested in through out his career. Questions of gender, sexuality, power, class and identity are as interconnected as the elements of the story, and portrayed with as much nuance. BYZANTIUM doesn’t point at anything as being the one cause of right and/or wrong in it’s story or it’s sub text, but instead let’s it all play out without that kind of moral judgement. It also isn’t as confrontational in it’s presentation of any single theme or sub text, and therefore, is able to walk the line between being deeply thought provoking and the kind of entertainment that is easy to completely fall into. It walks the line between being “mainstream” cinema and “socially conscious” with astonishing grace.

Add to that the fact that although it wasn’t the kind of film to have a blockbuster budget, but is still more visually interesting than the majority of films in theaters, and the end result is the kind of film that is going to develop a rabid following. It may not end up being the kind of commercial success that INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE or THE CRYING GAME were, but it’s something that fans of THE COMPANY OF WOLVES or ONDINE (two very different films) are going to find fascinating and engaging. Even as it’s not a horror film in the general understanding, there’s going to be a lot here for the TD readers who’ve enjoyed many of the more thoughtful indie horror films in the last decade. Neil Jordan may have lost some of his instinct to cut with an edge and to confront his audience with tough material, but in it’s place he’s gained the ability to tell a story in such a profoundly engaging and entertaining way that he can get his point across without it.

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