Irish writer/director Neil Jordan is probably best known to American viewing audiences for The Crying Game, which won him an Oscar for Best Screenplay in 1992, and for the expensive Hollywood version of Interview with the Vampire the next year. Since then, his popularity has waned despite a continued body of mostly solid films, including Michael Collins (1996) and The Butcher Boy (1997). Over the past 10 years, Jordan has made only four feature films, the most financially successful (The Brave One with Jodie Foster, a distaff version of Death Wish) of which was also the most typical and unimaginative.
Thanks to home video, however, Jordan’s better, more recent films are now available. In particular, I want to discuss his latest, Byzantium (2012), which just made its debut on DVD and Blu-Ray.
This film’s title, though appropriate, does little to reveal its subject. Byzantium is the name of a run-down hotel in a coastal town somewhere in the United Kingdom that becomes the temporary hideout for a mother (Gemma Arterton) and daughter (Saoirse Ronan) on the run. The name also recalls the former capital of the Ottoman Empire after the Crusades. The connection of those two is not without significance. Those in pursuit of the outlaw mother and daughter can trace their unique genetics back to that particular time in history. They are vampires.
So are Clara (Arterton) and teenage daughter Eleanor (Ronan). Byzantium flows effortlessly and evocatively between the present and the early 1800s, when Clara and Eleanor become members of the previously all-male brotherhood of the undead. Right off, we are quickly apprised of the women’s true nature, but their individual motivations and characters are more subtly developed as the film unfolds, breaching traditional vampire lore totems as effortlessly as the story moves back and forth in time.
Written by Moira Buffini (Stephen Frears’ Tamara Drewe and the 2011 version of Jane Eyre) and adapted from her stage play, Byzantium is a vampire story with real soul and intelligence as well as enough violence and bloodletting to earn an R rating. Featuring riveting performances from Arterton (James Bond’s plucky-but-doomed Girl Friday in Quantum of Solace) and the always-fascinating Ronan (Atonement, The Lovely Bones, Hanna), the story is as much about real-life horror as supernatural monsters. Both mother and daughter are initially the victims of men. Clara is forced into prostitution during the Napoleonic Wars by a sadistic English officer (Jonny Lee Miller) who later tries to wreak the same fate — and worse — upon her daughter.
In the interval, Clara literally steals the secret of immortal life from her abuser and then saves her daughter, but at the cost of Eleanor’s humanity. Together for 200 years, the two survive, each according to a strict ethical scale, feeding only on those who deserve or desire death. Their pursuers, however, are relentless.
The film Byzantium has it all — an intelligent script, terrific performances, beautiful photography and crisp direction from Neil Jordan. Even if you hadn’t known anything about the film until now, you shouldn’t miss it.