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Movie Review: Byzantium (2013)

Updated on May 13, 2014

Director: Neil Jordan

Cast:Gemma Arterton, Saoirse Ronan, Johnny Lee Miller, Sam Riley, Caleb Landry Jones, Daniel Mays, Glenn Doherty.

"There comes a time in life when secrets should be told."

-- dialogue from Byzantium


Nothing would give Eleanor Webb (Saoirse Ronan) greater pleasure than to reveal the dark secret she's been harboring all her life. She is seen repeatedly writing it down on pieces of paper, and then crumbling up the pages and releasing them to the wind. "Maybe the birds will read it," she tells us. Her secret has forced her to lie to others, about who she is, as well as the nature of her relationship with her mother Clara (Gemma Arterton). Now she's ready to tell the truth, if only to make a genuine connection with another human soul.

Eleanor's secret is that she's a 16 year old girl, and has been for the past 200 years. She and her mother are vampires, and they have been going through time running from a brotherhood of vampires after Clara broke a sacred rule by turning her daughter into one (apparently, women are not allowed to turn people). Clara has kept the existence of the brotherhood a secret from her daughter, and has supported her by working the streets as a freelance prostitute. In an earlier scene, Clara decapitates one of the brotherhood with a cheese wire, and she and Eleanor are forced to relocate to a seaside English town and start over.

It is there that Eleanor meets Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), a leukemia-stricken young waiter who immediately takes a liking to her after he hears her play the piano at the restaurant where he works. In time, Eleanor comes to trust Frank enough that she decides to write to him a story detailing her life and her terrible secret. The problem is that Clara is very adamant about making sure than any human who knows the truth about them won't live to tell about it.

Byzantium is an extraordinary movie, a quiet, melancholic, and poignant fantasy thriller from director Neil Jordan, who also made the Academy Award nominated Interview With a Vampire back in 1994. While the movie is as gory as you'd expect a film about blood suckers to be, Byzantium is not a horror movie by any means. It is, at heart, a deeply moving and heartbreaking tale about the sacrifices parents make for their children, and about outsiders longing for human companionship.


Being a vampiress does have its advantages!
Being a vampiress does have its advantages!

Clara finds a companion of her own in the lonely but kind-hearted Noel (Daniel Mays), whose mother recently passed away, and who has inherited the Byzantium Hotel, which was once a thriving business that has since become rundown. Since Clara was only a few years older than Eleanor when she turned her, she tells Noel that Eleanor is her little sister. Noel offers them refuge at the Byzantium, and Clara sees this as an opportunity to turn the place into a make-shift brothel, but one that's more sympathetic to the working girls, especially since she's been one her whole life.

The movie frequently cuts to flashbacks explaining the women's tragic backstory. Clara was sold as a prostitute at an early age by the despicable Captain Ruthven (Johnny Lee Miller), and was forced to give up her daughter when she was born because children weren't allowed in the brothel where she was employed. She contracts a disease that rots her lungs and causes her to cough up blood. When Ruthven's old buddy Darvell (Sam Riley) gives him a map to a rocky island that changes people into immortal vampires (the details how are best left unsaid), she steals the map from Ruthven and gains eternal life for herself. Not wanting to live as an immortal alone, she springs her daughter from the orphanage and makes her one as well.

One of the complaints I've heard against the movie is that Clara goes through life as a prostitute, a job she can't stand, when she could easily have been able to find other means of making money. I disagree. From a very early age, this is the only life she's ever known. She may not like the job, but it was enough to support her daughter during her stay at the orphanage, and it's enough to support them now. Besides, Clara's big thing is keeping her identity a secret from the rest of the world, and prostitution is a job that doesn't require deep human connections. A man pays a woman for her services, and nothing more than that.

One of the most intriguing elements of the film is the way it shows how both mother and daughter approach vampirism in different ways. Clara targets men who are scum and abusive to other women, or people who discover the truth about her and her daughter. Eleanor, on the other hand, is more of a mercy killer, targeting people who are already at death's door, and that's only after they give her their consent. "Peace be with you," she tells them before making the kill. "May light shine upon you." Even still, every life she ends takes a toll on her. It's easy enough for Clara to kill; she's all about forgetting the past. Eleanor seems to be constantly haunted by it.

Before you ask: Hell yes, it's more romantic than Twilight!
Before you ask: Hell yes, it's more romantic than Twilight!

Neil Jordan paces the movie very deliberately, which is how it should be. A faster pace would have pushed us away from the material and diminished a lot of its impact. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt contributes to the film's atmosphere with his lushly Gothic images, with some of the most breathtaking shots involving waterfalls of blood. The mother daughter relationship between Clara and Eleanor is beautifully developed (I smiled at the scene where Clara sang to her daughter while they hitched a ride from a trucker), but the heart of the movie is easily the relationship between Eleanor and Frank. Their story is one of lost souls who finally find each other, and when they kiss, it isn't explicit and erotic, but rather tender and sweet (which is the way a first kiss should be).

The acting is terrific across the board, but the movie belongs to both Arterton and Ronan, and they both turn in spell-binding performances. Just watch Arterton's face when she's on the phone with her daughter and realizes how much her relationship with Eleanor has crumbled. Just watch Ronan try to fight off temptation when she sees a rag soaked with Frank's blood on the ground. Both of these performances are award-worthy, and both of them keep the viewer entranced throughout the entire movie. The screenplay is written by Moira Buffini, which she adapted from a play she wrote called A Vampire Story, a title that describes this movie the best. Byzantium is now out on DVD, and is one of the very best movies of 2013.

Final Grade: **** (out of ****)

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