Thursday, 5 December 2013

Byzantium (2012)

Vampires, as a a genre, are dead in film. Creatively bereft, it is perhaps ironic that, like those mythical monsters, Hollywood seemed to have managed to make the genre more popular and prosperous whilst dead. Look at the Twilight franchise for example (if you really must) and the many knock offs that has gone on to create.

For me, the last great vampire film came not from Hollywood but from Sweden;  Låt den rätte komma in (Let The Right One In) which a revived and rebooted Hammer would go on to remake into the English language with alarming but numbingly inevitable alacrity. 

It has only truly been in TV (and specifically British TV, such as Ultraviolet and Being Human) and in the genres original format, the printed page (the likes of Kim Newman's excellent Anno Dracula series of novels, currently enjoying a revival, being an obvious stand out) where the vampiric legend has been kept afresh with bold storytelling, thriving with innovation and imagination, with one hand placed solemnly on the rule book, and another ready to rip it up.

It pleases me therefore to announce Byzantium as the finest vampire movie since  Låt den rätte komma in. Neil Jordan's return to the genre (having previously directed 1994's Interview With a Vampire) shows he has lost none of his passion or flair for handling such material and he chose wisely when tackling Moira Buffini's script, an adaptation of her 2008 play A Vampire Story, which in the traditions of the very best innovative projects in the genre, isn't afraid to add its own spin to the myths and legends.

It would be impossible and unfair to write a review of this without referencing the sublime double act at the film's heart, namely the beautiful Gemma Arterton and the incredible Saoirse Ronan as runaway, undead mother and daughter Clara and Eleanor. The pair play off one another amazingly, Arterton's character is hard, brittle, duplicitous and passionate; a vampire who kills to keep her secret and wages an eternal war on those who exploit the weak - mainly men trading in or abusing women. Whereas Ronan is fey, haunted and moralistic; her blood lust is used only as a euthanasia for those aged and infirm pensioners tired of life, a state she must cruelly persevere with. It's another incredible turn from the then 18 year old Ronan who, simply for the role of Eleanor itself, deserves the lion's share of the praise. She is shockingly talented beyond her years and capturing that fine balancing act between young and old all at once.

Unfortunately as enjoyable as this film is, and it really truly is, it isn't flawless. There are a couple of hokey scenes, lacklustre dialogue and paper thin characters wandering around the plot - indeed some, such as Uri Gavriel's Savella, feel like they've walked in from another far trashier more popcorn friendly film altogether, spouting lines like 'I hate cry women' after he dispatches a poor unfortunate whose only failing was trying to help a central character - and it's these things that mean it misses out on perfection. Jordan clearly tries to make up for these weaknesses by populating the flimsier characters with some serious acting talent but as good as it is (Daniel Mays, Kate Ashfield, Tom Hollander - the latter of whom one suspects is taking the role that may have been at some stage set aside for Jordan regular Stephen Rea, who is notable for his non-appearance) it's not enough, and on one occasion (Johnny Lee Miller playing the boo hiss traditional villain) it just shows up the failings even more. Equally, the difficulty inherent in Caleb Landry Jones strange accent makes some key scenes really difficult to follow. He's possibly the film's weakest link, which is a real shame as he's central to the plot as Ronan's love interest/likely saviour. Now, against Ronan's talent it is perhaps understandable that he's found wanting - but that accent really doesn't help matters.

That said, the film is stunningly captivating with a nice line in imagery (the desolate run down seaside setting, the fountains flowing vivid Hammer red blood) the use of concerns of neglect and abuse that was run parallel to the story, with the immortality the characters possessed. and some tongue in cheek humour - the dysfunctional family sit down to watch Dracula Price Of Darkness one evening. Yes on the whole, I would definitely recommend the sexy and sinister Byzantium. It's a dark and heady, melancholic brew that occasionally put me in mind of Shimako Sato's Tale Of A Vampire (1992) in the way it managed to capture both modern life in the UK and the immortality the characters possessed. 

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