Just when werewolf armies, zombie hordes, and Stephenie Meyer’s affectless prose seemed to have done in the poor old vampire film, along comes this gloomy, glossy little oddity about the deathless from Neil Jordan. Like in his elegant take on Interview with the Vampire, Jordan’s vampires are a study in dichotomy; either happy to bury themselves in the bloody necessities of their survival or morally indecisive. In the meantime, they have eternity to deal with, and not a whole lot of money or options for living it.
Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan, superb) and Clara (Gemma Arterton, average) arrive in a grungy seaside town somewhere in the United Kingdom less as elegant immortals than as scrappy gypsies looking for a place to kip. Playing at being sisters with about a decade between them, they are actually mother and daughter and hail from about two centuries prior. The younger Eleanor is a wispy, thoughtful orphan poet-girl who wanders the streets under her little red riding hood, scribbling florid bits of autobiography into notebooks and then throwing the pages into the wind; “I write of what I cannot speak.” For her part, Clara is more guttersnipe survivor, a savage and canny predator who seemingly has wadded-up fishnet stockings for a soul. Eleanor plays Beethoven sonatas and primly feeds on the aged; just those who ask her for release. Clara flounces around in bustiers and lures her prey in like some noir black widow. The mother-daughter dynamic is as stable as a match and a can of gasoline.
The weight of the past is most evident in Eleanor’s desperate need to tell somebody her story, instead of just throwing it into the air. While Clara is bamboozling a sad sack into turning his decrepit hotel into a cathouse, Eleanor is tortuously falling for a sickly and dying young man (Caleb Landry Jones, a study in longing) whom she very well might doom by revealing her secret. (Mama has a thing about mortals learning who they are.) That about does it for story here, with the film seeding in the odd flashback to centuries earlier to give some context to how the two women came to be what they are, and to explain why a couple of determined men pretending to be police (Sam Riley and Uri Gavriel) are tracking them down through the ashes of their inexpertly burned tracks.
Jordan, working from a screenplay by Moira Buffini, who adapted her play, doesn’t overload the story with too much of the usual vampire folderol; though he certainly overloads it with glimpses of films past (the desolate beach town, fairy-tale imagery, and amusement parks that feature in everything from Mona Lisa to The Crying Game and In Dreams). These immortals may not like the light but they can certainly walk in it. There’s no mention of garlic or crosses, and they don’t seem to have much more than slightly above average strength. However, decapitation seems to be the best method of stopping one, and they have a thing about entering houses they haven’t been invited to.
Instead of ginning up drama with all the usual bloody-fang theatrics, Byzantium works a glum vein of melancholy that verges on the lugubrious. There’s a fine and dark Romantic soul to this film, particularly embodied by Eleanor’s would-be love affair and Clara’s vengeful furies. But it’s not enough to compensate for a story that spins in circles as ultimately predictable as a carnival ride, only not as exhilarating.