In our current culture, we have a very PG-13 take on vampires. They’ve become sex objects and the subject of teen entertainment in stuff like Twilight and The Vampire Diaries. For fans of vampires, that has to be depressing because there’s a lot more there to explore.
Look at films like 2008’s Let The Right One In and the 2010 American remake Let Me In. They’re more serious takes on vampires that work really well and are for modern audiences. We don’t get that enough, but thankfully Neil Jordan’s Byzantium is here to help plug the gap.
Jordan is the guy who gave us Interview with the Vampire, another serious look at vampires and what it might be like to live as a vampire. Byzantium is similar in that respect, focusing on how difficult it could be to be tasked with being an immortal vampire.
We follow Gemma Arterton’s Clara and her daughter Eleanor, played by Saoirse Ronan. They’re two nomadic vampires “born” in the 1800s that are just trying to get by in the modern world while also using their powers to help people. Yes, help people. While Clara aims to help bullied women, Eleanor prefers to give peace to sick old people.
While I understand this was based on a play by Moira Buffini, this is a refreshing idea to see on screen. Vampires are continually portrayed as bad guys or obsessive lovers or at war with either humanity or werewolves. It’s nice to see two vampires that are trying to live by a code and actually use their “gifts” to help people. This comes across well as the two leads put in good performances. Arterton puts in a good performance as a mother who will do anything to give what she thinks is the best for her child, while Ronan works very well who wants to forge her own path.
Their performances help sell the fact that living life as an immortal wandering around the world and doing work that is seedy isn’t easy to do. It’s a struggle to live and adapt in a world where people die after 60 years. You’ve got to keep moving every 10 or so years and can’t get attached to anything. That comes across here.
There’s another thing: there are some mother-daughter dynamics at play here. It’s the fairly generic “parents-want-the-best-for-their-kids-but-don’t-know-it’s-time-to-let-go” plot that’s used, but it works well enough with the vampire coat of paint.
That vampire coat of paint is also quite refreshing. Gone are the sparkles or death that the sunlight brings. These vampires can not only walk in the sun, but they aren’t the super-powered beasts that they’re regularly portrayed as. Yes, they still need an invitation to go into your home. And they still drink blood, but they don’t have fangs. Instead, they’re able to grow one of their thumbs’ fingernails and use that as a sort of switch blade, which then allows them to pierce their victims and drink.
This tale does play out slowly, however. It takes its time getting to where it’s going and it takes a while to see how all the pieces fall together. That’s because the film also recounts how our two leads became the vampires they are. And while things are subtly foreshadowed, it’s easy to feel like the movie has no clue where it’s going. It certainly does though, and everything pays off nicely at the finale.
Overall, Byzantium is a worthwhile and enjoyable vampire drama that will satisfy vampire fans with an interesting and unique look at the creatures we all love to fear.