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Byzantium (2013 film)

A Vampire Film directed by Neil Jordan

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The Curse of Vampirism and the Hardship of Immortality

  • Aug 4, 2013
Vampires have become one of the most versatile tools in story-telling. From horror, to action, fantasy and science fiction, these blood-sucking creatures have endured to become one of the most intriguing characters in cinema and books. The vampire genre have even been used to be what can be called as a sub-element to a center piece in story-telling. Yes, while the “Twilight” franchise have damaged its reputation as a sub-genre, I do believe that there is some life to the vampire genre. Neil Jordan became known for his “Interview with the Vampire“ The Vampire Chronicles” and so when I heard that he is making another vampire flick, I immediately jumped at the chance to see it.

To enjoy “Byzantium”, one needs to know what he is getting into. Gone are the feral creatures who prey upon the living, the seductive creature who seduces its victims and gone are the cheesy red-lined caped creature that made its mark way back then. Vampires have evolved into something that had been made to fit our modern society, and this film is more akin to “Cronos” and “Let the Right One In” than "Dracula".

                    Gemma Arterton as Clara and Thure Lindhardt as Werner in "Byzantium."

The story is about Eleanor and Clara (Saoirse Ronan from “The Lovely Bones” and beauteous Gemma Aterton from “Clash of the Titans”) as they travel from one place to another. They are very private and they keep themselves, never staying in one place for too long, so that no one could get too attached. Clara is a stripper/prostitute who tries to make ends meet for the both of them, while Eleanor is something of a recluse, who just manages to express her thoughts in her writings to herself. When Eleanor meets Frank (Caleb Landry Jones) she is both drawn and uncomfortable to be around him. Frank does not know that Clara and Eleanor are vampires, and they have lived for over two centuries. Eleanor is hungry for company, and Clara has made a brothel to sustain them . But how can they find comfort when they are constantly on the run and Eleanor herself does not know what they are running from?

                    Gemma Arterton as Clara, Sam Riley as Darvell, Uri Gavriel as Savella and Thure Lindhardt as Werner in "Byzantium."

                   Caleb Landry Jones as Frank in "Byzantium."

“Byzantine” is a slow burn, it takes its time to develop its characters and the situation around them. As a result, the film takes on a very sleepy feel, and frankly it does take longer to get going. I know the screenplay by Moira Buffini and the direction wanted to allow the viewer to put the story together in their brains, and it does a good job in creating questions the longer you delve into its story. Much of the story is told in the form of flashbacks, and these were incorporated well into its script. It does a good job in keeping things in the dark as much as possible, and there lies its capacity for the viewer to question where everything is going. It does offer some nice twists and turns, and while some were predictable, some were surprising elements that made an impact into its narrative. I suppose, one could say that “Byzantium” is a film about the loneliness of immortality, that it is not something that leads to glamour but something that feels more of a curse; especially when such a ‘gift’ was taken rather than given.

Characters were introduced, to develop the characters even as the characters themselves move around in present time. As the past coincides with the primary tale, the viewer is treated to what made, how and what led to such things. It does get more interesting after the 45 minute mark, I did become invested in a neutral manner as to what I was watching. Those who are expecting the super-strong, super-fast, fanged vampire may be surprised. The vampires here are less intimidating and they do act like normal folk, as they do not have the expected reaction to sunlight. Rather than having fangs, they sprout a sharp claw on their thumb in order to open an incision for them to drain the blood from their victims (Clara also displayed a certain degree of abnormal strength). They are also creatures who only take what they need and they live under a code; and this code protects them from notice. The vampires here were not made to be scary, but rather to become sympathetic, cursed, suffering creatures.

                   Saoirse Ronan as Eleanor in "Byzantium."

                  Gemma Arterton as Clara and Sam Riley as Darvell in "Byzantium."

The two central characters do work well as a unit. Gemma Aterton was perfect as Clara and she was the most interesting character in the film. She had a lot of layers that gave different dimensions to its narrative, while Ronan’s Eleanor may be sympathetic, I did feel that her character was a little too whiny for a 200 year old vampire. The performances were quite good, even as the supporting character played by Caleb Landry Jones made Ronan’s character much more rounded. What I did not like was how the Captain and the officer felt rather underutilized in the script. I thought the film should’ve focused more on Clara’s story rather than having her become a subplot around Eleanor’s tale. There was a lot of potential in the screenplay and Clara‘s story was exceptional; while I understood that it was seen from Eleanor’s point of view, I thought it could’ve been a lot better if it gave more focus on Clara‘s tale.

The direction was quite capable in telling its story. I know, there were times that all the mumbo-jumbo and emotional jargon in the dialogue taxed me, but overall, the execution grew on me. Jordan’s execution and the way he played with the color palette represented each period, each emotion and each telling scene to express its significance and it captures the spirit very well. I also thought that the scene in the mountains, in the hidden cavern where the birth of the thumb-sucking vampire took place offered a nice visual treat, but its origins weren't defined at all in the script. Despite the fact that the film does not focus on horror elements, it did have some good practical effects with blood and gore; the beheadings were pretty gruesome as it had that low-budget charm. It had a lot of artsy feel to the visuals, but then, it just did not completely immerse me. 

                    Gemma Arterton as Clara in "Byzantium."

“Byzantium” is a dramatic exercise around vampirism and its curse. While it did a good job in inspiring an attachment to its characters but it just reached for an emotional level that just did not quite make it out in its narrative. There just wasn’t enough emotional power to overwhelm with its more dramatic scenes, that after all is said and done, I found myself having a glass half full. Still, it may be one of the more decent vampire movies I’ve seen recently, as Clara is just such an interesting character that I wanted to know more about her. The film has one mean bite, but it just does not cut deep. But it is a decent exercise in using vampirism as its sub-genre that it gets a mild recommendation from me. [3 ½ Out of 5 Stars]

Poster art for "Byzantium." Poster art for "Byzantium."
The Curse of Vampirism and the Hardship of Immortality

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August 26, 2013
I haven't even heard of this I don't think, great review of course.
August 05, 2013
More Byzantium (2013 film) reviews
review by . October 29, 2013
Vampires occupy a unique place in our cultural history.  Trapped between life and death, they’re often portrayed as the classical romantic character in spite of the fact that they must prey on the living – on consuming human blood – in order to survive.  When they love, they love eternally, but circumstances often require them to keep from ‘blessing’ their soulmates with the gift of eternal life (or whatever comes close).  Because they’re still …
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