Running away from some unpleasantness in the big city, mother and daughter Clara and Eleanor (Arterton and Ronan) arrive in the peculiarly depressing environ of an out-of-season English seaside town. Clara wastes little time in getting her teeth (metaphorically) into Noel (Mays), the sad sack owner of a rundown hotel called The Byzantium. Very quickly the besotted hotel manager finds his establishment turned into a knocking shop with Clara as madame.
Clara keeps her morose, artistically inclined and disapproving teenage daughter at a distance from her less than salubrious profession, and enrolls her in the local school where she catches the attention of Frank (Jones), a floppy-haired hemophiliac. Clara is less than thrilled at this development, and even less pleased when the gothic fantasy Eleanor submits to her drama teacher (Hollander) when tasked with writing about herself inspires the him to start investigating her home life.
Y’see, Eleanor’s fantastical tales (and this is not a spoiler unless you expected a kitchen sink drama from the poster) are in fact true. She may look like a 16-year-old, but she and her mother are multi-centenarian, blood-drinking vampires. However, a visit from social services is the least of Clara’s worries.
Byzantium marks the long overdue return of director Jordan to the horror genre he so successfully mined with The Company of Wolves (1984) and Interview with the Vampire (1994). Cleverly mixing themes and imagery from gothic literature with elements of English noir, the film is as fresh a vampire tale as the Swedish Let The Right One In. Byzantium’s seaside setting also deliberately recalls Graeme Greene’s novel Brighton Rock and its two film versions (Riley played Pinky in the most recent version). Clara is a noirish femme fatale and prostitute who is highly reminiscent of the character played by Cathy Tyson in Jordan’s 1986 English neo-noir Mona Lisa.
Adapted from her play, Buffini’s clever script takes some aspects of vampire lore and discards others: these revenants walk in daylight; there are no fangs; garlic and crosses have no ill effects. Instead of filed canines, there are razor-sharp thumbnails like talons. They still need blood to survive, however, and the film does not soft play how lethal and amoral Clara is. Buffini also brings her own twists to the mythology, creating a new version of the origin and cause of vampirism.
Jordan brings a great visual style to the film, especially in the subtle way that he handles the transition between the contemporary story and extensive flashbacks that explain the women’s backstory during England’s war with Napoleonic France. There is also a great sleazy cameo in the flashback scenes from Jonny Lee Miller. Performances are great all round. Arterton is excellent, making some truly trashy costumes look like catwalk stuff and exuding a feline predatory grace. Ronan is completely convincing as an old soul trapped in a young body. Jones gives a strange performance as her love interest, but his eccentricity works in the context of the characters' star-crossed and dangerous romance.
Armageddon comes to this coastal town (that they forgot to close down) when the all-male order of vampires from whom Clara and Eleanor have been fleeing finally track them down. The careful pace finally erupts into a very exciting final act that brings the various plot strands together in a satisfying finale.
There has already been some nonsense talked about this being either the antithesis of the Twilight movies or the logical progression for Twilight fans looking for a more adult gothic romance. Ignore all this, Byzantium and Twilight (and Stake Land, for that matter) are perfectly capable of existing concurrently. It is also tempting to read a feminist slant into the way Clara and Eleanor are in conflict with a blatantly misogynistic vampire religion. However, the sparkly wet-look jeggings and push-up bras Arterton rocks (sorry, but she does) are going to ensure this is a film that is polysexual in its appeal.
Anything but silent and grey, Byzantium is a welcome genre return for Jordan and further evidence that the vampire myth will never fade away.
EXTRAS ★★½ Interviews with cast and crew, including Jordan, Arterton, Ronan, Riley, Buffini, producer Stephen Woolley and production designer Simon Elliott (56:56); a Q&A from the Glasgow FrightFest screening in February 2013 18:24); and the theatrical trailer.