Friday, November 1, 2013

DVD/Blu-ray: Neil Jordan dips back into vampirism with handsomely made "Byzantium"


Byzantium (2013) 
118 min. rated R. 

Irish director Neil Jordan (2009's "Ondine") dips back into vampire lore after 1994's "Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles," a handsome, seductively rendered adaptation of Anne Rice's novel with starry A-list hunks and little, curly-headed Kirsten Dunst. Based on screenwriter Moira Buffini's play A Vampire Story, "Byzantium" is a savory transfusion of fresh, warm blood into the subgenre that became a bit toothless once the goofy, soapy "Twilight" franchise set the world on fire. It not only retains the erotic charge that used to be present in vampirism but actually makes it possible to take seriously the tragic lives of immortals. A complete vampiress reinvention or not, the film's feminist point-of-view and empowerment slant certainly serve it quite well. 

Technically, no vampire is really interviewed, but Eleanor Webb (Saoirse Ronan) has a story to tell, and she wants a mortal to read her truthful journal. A 200-year-old soul in a 16-year-old's body, she can confide in the elderly before putting one of them to rest with the skin-slitting talon of her thumb and then feeding on their plasma. Her mother, Clara (Gemma Arterton), supports them both by working as a prostitute. When a member of the all-male Brotherhood comes looking for them both, Clara and Eleanor flee the scene to start over in a seaside town. There, the eldest meets an awkward, trusting sugar daddy (Daniel Mays) who's the heir of an old hotel called Byzantium. Clara sees it as a way to set up shop, finding women off the streets and turning the building into a brothel. Meanwhile, Eleanor begins to relate to a mortal named Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), a loner who's battling cancer, and can't help the urge to be honest about herself with him. As Clara warns Eleanor, those with knowledge will die. 

Soaked in atmosphere and punctuated by bursts of blood (and, at some point, rivers of blood), "Byzantium" has the storytelling sweep of a grand novel and the mood of a half-Gothic, half-neon-colored horror tale. Written by Buffini, the film is a then-and-now story, unfolding in layers and crossing time periods to tell Clara's 1800s-set story through Eleanor's story. Both female characters are just trying to survive, independently and interdependently. It's about time the ethereal Saoirse Ronan be cast as a vampire. She's quietly compelling, as always, playing Eleanor as human as possible with more vulnerabilities from being a teenage girl. Vamping it up in tight, black leather but not in performance, Gemma Arterton is bewitching as Clara, a bosomy specimen whose mission in life is "to punish those who prey on the weak and to curb the power of men." Caleb Landry Jones subtly pours emotion into his icy face (see "Antiviral" for the diametric opposite) as Frank, and there's menacing support from Jonny Lee Miller, Sam Riley, and Thure Lindhardt. To read the rest of the review, go to Diabolique Magazine.

Grade: B +

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