Vampires, Neil Jordan, and Saoirse Ronan looks like a winning combination on paper, but Byzantium all style and no substance. Ronan is customarily subtle, poignant, and nuanced, and Jordan imbues the entire thing with his austerity and low-key eroticism, but there’s just not enough story to justify the length, the narrative withholding, or “surprise!” method of delivering bits of material. It’s all right in front of you, very clearly and obviously, and Byzantium thinks it’s distance and manipulations are smarter than they are.
Problem lies squarely with Gemma Arterton’s Clara, a character with a backstory, profession, and trajectory that deserves her own movie in which everything is fully fleshed out and not dripped out in-between bits of love birds and self-mythologizing narration. Vampirism in Byzantium is a gentlemen’s club and Clara’s transformation from sickly prostitute to vampire femme fatale is more drab than anything. There’s juicy, rich material with vital lifeblood flowing in the veins of that story, but Byzantium treats it as a mere afterthought or as exposition for Ronan’s Eleanor to deliver under the guise of a notebook containing their shared journey to this point.
If you’re wondering why it’s a shared journey and can’t figure out that they’re mother/daughter, then I’m not sure what to tell you. They masquerade as siblings or some other familial relation, it changes depending on what city they’ve escaped to this time around, and remain in constant vigilance and fear of discovery by the brotherhood of vampires on their trail. They’ve been chasing these two ever since their creation, some hundred-plus years ago but what’s time to an immortal, really?
The feminist uprising flirted at within Byzantium is shuttered in favor of a love story between an undead girl and a dying boy. Granted, the scenes between Ronan and Caleb Landry Jones are by far some of the best, quaking with romantic yearning and a meeting of equally doomed kindred spirits. She’s forever a sixteen-year-old vampire while he’s slowly dying from leukemia. I suppose other love stories have been built on worse premises. I’m being pithy, but the scenes between the two of them are uniformly strong, engaging, and a reminder of just how talented these two young actors are.
It’s just such a mild disappointment that Jordan essentially made an art house Twilight instead of the far more interesting girl power fable lurking around the fringes. For all of its flights of violence, slow burning eroticism (check the way Ronan plays with her victims by slowing tracing her long fingernail over their veins), or charismatic love story, Byzantium ultimately boils down to a drab piece of Masterpiece Theater.