BRIT PICK: Byzantium (2013)

Byzantium (UK/ Ireland, 2013)
Directed by Neil Jordan
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, Sam Riley, Jonny Lee Miller

Throughout its long and varied history, the horror genre has been criticised for the roles that it accords to women. Horror films are regularly accused of being sexist or misogynist, of objectifying the female form through sex and violence, and of presenting a damaging and limiting view of what women's roles should be in narrative film-making. Whether it's one of Dracula's brides or the scantily-clad victim of a serial killer, it isn't hard to find examples of how the horror genre has, directly or indirectly, degraded women.
Of course, such a highly general observation is not entirely justified, and no one film is going to change the way that an entire body of tropes and conventions are perceived. But for those who remain unconvinced about women being able to be more than victims in horror, Byzantium is very much a step in the right direction. Neil Jordan's third foray into vampires is driven by two well-written, very different female characters, whose depiction provides a unique and intriguing take on a familiar mythology. While not quite as perfectly formed as Cronos or Let The Right One In, it still comes with a hearty recommendation.
First and foremost, Byzantium is a clean aesthetic break from the current crop of often anaemic vampire films. If you're sick of Twilight and the stories promoted by its success, then Jordan's film really is the perfect antidote. Not only does it make vampires scary again (as they always should be), but its visuals are really quite enticing, being a blend of old-fashioned Gothic and distinctly modern touches. In doing so it provides a way in for new viewers coming to vampires for the very first time, while also appeasing the dyed-in-the-wool horror fans who like their bloodsuckers with a bit more graceful elegance.
Vampire films are often highly sexual, whether it's the heaving bosoms of the Hammer era or the AIDS subtext in Jordan's previous offering, Interview with the Vampire. Byzantium is also a highly sexual film, but it presents sexuality in two different forms across two different time periods. Its period section, with its ravishing Gothic sensibility, focusses on the exploitation of Gemma Arterton's character, who is sold into sexual slavery and becomes a vampire to free herself from it. The modern section, which has an appealing lurid quality, see that same character using sex as a source of power, luring helpless male victims to their deaths.
The sexual duality of Byzantium is consolidated by its narrative duality, namely the decision to tell its story through a split time-frame. Many stories like this emphasise the ageless nature of vampires, including Let The Right One In: it's the appealing dilemma of remaining physically prime at the cost of losing your eternal soul. It's a risky strategy, having to jump between the two time periods, but Jordan accomplishes it by setting up our two main characters very adeptly in the present, before the long excursions into their pasts begin.
This decision also pays off because of the surreal, almost hallucinatory quality the film has. Jordan's transitions between past and present are dream-like, with Saoirse Ronan's character spotting younger versions of herself walking on the modern-day beach. Much of the film deals with the characters having to return to and confront the site of a dark act that was perpetrated against them, and like a lot of great ghost stories the film uses images like this to play tricks on us. Sean Bobbett, who shot Hunger and Shame with Steve McQueen, strikes a great balance between the sleaze of 21st-century sex workers and the ethereal quality afforded by the shimmering sea.
Byzantium's visual decisions are complimented by small adjustments that it makes to the mythology of vampires. Aside from the story being driven predominantly by female vampires, the film puts its own unique twist on many of the key images or components of the genre. Rather than have the vampires biting someone's neck with fangs, Jordan gives them a fingernail that extends at will to gently slit a neck or wrist. Both of them are able to stay out in the daylight, due to changes in the origin story which removes bats and thereby any nocturnal aspects. Instead of being bitten by a winged demon, those wanting to become vampires are taken to an island filled with dark caves and rivers which turn to blood.
Byzantium is, at its heart, a film about women who have been ostracised by polite society and are attempting to carve out their own identity. Just as the horror genre is often accused of entrenched misogyny, so the vampire order that Clara is part of is misogynistic, with female vampires being forbidden from creating new vampires, on pain on death. Being regarded as outcasts and constantly on the run from the law (or the vampire equivalent), the mother and daughter have to use various underhand methods to stay alive while remaining undetected.
Given this intriguing set-up, the film could disappoint us instantly by being lazy with its characterisation. It could, in other words, regard all female vampires as being the same and thereby fall into the trap of regarding women as the 'other' to men. Fortunately, Moira Buffini's screenplay is far more nuanced than that, giving Clara and Eleanor very different desires, methods and motivations while keeping the bond between them believable. What we get is a very interesting study of gender and gender politics within the confines of a meaningful, well-written relationship - something that is sadly all too rare in modern horror.
The mother-daughter relationship that anchors Byzantium is driven by conflict between the differing methods and personalities of the two women. Clara's maternal bond to her daughter leads her to be protective of her, but in doing so she smothers and represses her, giving her no space for freedom or development to realise whom she can really be. Clara's opportunism, including sex work, is contrasted with Eleanor's sense of tact and reserve: while her mother takes whatever comes their way, she genuinely befriends her victims and only releases those who are too frail and ready to die. The way that her victims mistake her for a delivering angel is a striking contrast to the seedy manner in which her mother often operates.
The film is also interesting for the way it handles its romantic interactions, principally the blossoming yet stilted love between Frank and Eleanor. Frank suffers from leukaemia and increasingly yearns for death as a means of release from his burdens; when he finds out Eleanor's secret, he falls for her all the more believing that said release is close at hand. Eleanor is deeply conflicted on this issue: having been dead since she was 16, she knows the downsides of living forever, but her desire for contact (and to spite her mother in the process) prevent her from pushing him away.
Many 'young adult' stories would use such an encounter as an excuse to water down their female character by making her overly sensitive. But Jordan is always careful to maintain the story's horror elements, specifically how dangerous Eleanor is. After Frank falls off his bike, he starts bleeding profusely: his treatment includes drugs to stop his blood from clotting. As Eleanor helps him, she is constantly fighting the urge to drink said blood, resorting in the end to sucking on the handkerchief he held to his wrist before his parents arrived. It's a wonderfully sad and chilling moment which shows how impossible their relationship is.
The performances in Byzantium are of a very high calibre. Saoirse Ronan continues to be one of the most reliable young talents around, turning in another performance of grace, poise and emotional complexity. Gemma Arterton has been very annoying in the past (in Quantum of Solace, for example), but here she is very well-cast and convincingly conveys a wide range of emotions. Elsewhere Sam Riley remains as intimidating here as he was in the remake of Brighton Rock, and Jonny Lee Miller is suitably foul as the misogynistic Captain.
There are a couple of small problems with Byzantium which prevent it from being a great vampire film. While all the themes or ideas it raises are very interesting, and executed with intelligence, they are not all developed to a satisfying conclusion or left open in a way that invites further discussion: they are left as loose ends which are not long enough to tie up in any way. Additionally, some of the school scenes are a little clichéd, with the film treading too close to Dead Poets Society for comfort. These scenes play a part in the story, but are written very out of step with everything else.
Byzantium is an arresting and intriguing vampire film which challenges the conventions of the genre while maintaining its livelihood. Its gender politics and examination of misogyny are thoroughly appealing, being driven by two very convincing performances, sharp direction and stunning visuals. Only time will tell whether it will become as well-regarded as its generic predecessors, but until that day arrives, it will remain an underrated British gem.


NEXT REVIEW: Gravity (2013)