“Byzantium” doesn’t breathe new life into the weary vampires-on-the-run / young-vampires-in-love formulas. But Neil Jordan (“Interview with the Vampire,” “The Crying Game”) still manages to return this sort of tale to the realm of adults, with the meaty themes and grim, gory violence that “Twilight” scrubbed out.
Saoirse Ronan is our heroine, the young woman who narrates the tale in snippets of memoir that she writes and then throws away. Why?
“My story can never be told,” she narrates. “I remember everything. It’s a burden.”
And what young Eleanor remembers is her decades of travel with Clara (Gemma Arterton), her ruthless and sexy protector. Clara is quick to take up pole dancing or prostitution to help them make ends meet. And if things get out of hand, if those stalking them get too close, Clara is more than willing to bite and behead any threat to their survival. They’re vampires.
Eleanor has a compassionate streak. Even after a near-miss attack, she’s inclined to take pity on any human who takes pity them. With Clara’s overripe body, fishnet stockings and stiletto heels, men take them in, all the time. The fragile Noel (Daniel Mays), who owns his mother’s old Byzantium boarding house in the run-down coastal resort town where they turn up, offers them shelter. Eleanor begs Clara to spare him.
Eleanor meets a sickly young waiter, Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), when she sits at the piano in his restaurant.
“How’d you learn all those notes?”
“Two hundred years.”
Eleanor has longed to share her secret, despite Clara’s warnings. Might Frank be someone she can trust with it?
There are vampire tale tropes — they must be “invited” into houses where they carry out their feeding — and easy comparisons to earlier recent stories in this genre, particularly “Let the Right One In.” The novelty here is the absence of fangs. The vampires sport long, puncture-wound creating fingernails, the “pointed nails of justice.”
“Byzantium” fills in Clara and Eleanor’s back story with vivid, 200-year-old flashbacks. Jonny Lee Miller plays a sadistic soldier-rapist who set Clara on the vampire-harlot track during the Napoleonic Wars. Moira Buffini’s script, adapted from her play, tends toward the poetic. Even the pragmatic Clara has her lyrical moments, with her “eyes that cut through lies, lungs that breathe eternity.”
And Jordan and his designers and cinematographer create a vividly lurid and seedy seaside setting for all this, an overcast sky for a story that “can never be told” or see the cold, harsh light of day.
There’s not much new here, but at least “Byzantium” has well-acted, compelling characters telling its time-worn tale with style. That’s the best we can hope for these days from this genre that will not die.
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, Caleb Landry Jones
Directed by Neil Jordan, written by Moira Buffini, based on her play. An IFC release
Running time: 1:53
MPAA rating: R for bloody violence, sexual content and language