There are a cornucopia of vampire movies out there so it makes some amount of sense that this 2013 horror drama has flown under the radar. I mean, it’s not even director Neil Jordan’s most famous movie in the vampire sub genre - that would certainly go to his 1994 gothic horror romance, Interview with the Vampire. But this movie is one all of us had almost no idea existed. I thought it was an action flick (spoiler - it’s not). So what is it about, why is it not very well known, and how did it manage to make less than $1 million on an $8 million budget? Some of those questions will be answered below, but as always, beware the spoilers.
Reviewed by: Jake
I’m going to start by saying this film is presented in a non-linear format with a ton of flashbacks, so it’s inherently a bit messy to do a plot synopsis. I’m going to try to keep thins as linear and basic as possible. You want more? That’s why they make Wikipedia, hombres. Here we go with the quick rundown.
Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) are a mother/daughter duo of centuries-old vampires. Clara is perpetually in her 30’s (?) and is voluptuous as hell, so she seems to have a habit of playing a role in the sex industry where she makes money for the family by stealing and feeding on unsuspecting “customers”. Eleanor is sixteen forever (sorry) and she is your classic precocious child character. While Clara has gone through the centuries by lying and scamming her way through the world while keeping her secret hidden, Eleanor desperately wants to live a more truthful, virtuous life. She feeds on older folks who are at the end of their days as some sort of a twisted bringer of mercy. They spend a lot of time on the run, as they are being pursued by male members of something called The Brethren, which we learn is the order of the vampires.
Clara originally gained eternal life by stealing a map from a British naval officer, but it was somewhat of an act of retribution anyway because he was a grade A douchebag and basically raped her into life at a brothel. When Clara became a vampire on this remote island where you can enter a stone hut and be turned into one of the creatures by offering your life the enraged officer, Captain Ruthven (Johnny Lee Miller), who is dying of syphilis, rapes then actually 16 year-old Eleanor. Clara murders him and also turns Clara into a vampire to save her from dying for good.
Fast-forward to present day and the two are holed up in an old hotel called the Byzantium somewhere in England. Clara is fighting off the pursuits of the Brotherhood while Eleanor meets and falls in love with a boy named Frank (Caleb Landry Jones) who has leukemia. When Eleanor divulges her secret to Frank it causes trouble in the town and Clara begins killing those who know the truth to cover their tracks. This draws the attention of the Brethren who hunt her down again. When they catch Clare, one of the two pursuers is her original love-interest from way back and he saves her life by killing the other member of the Brethren he is with, surely exiling him too from the order and leading to a life on the run with Clara. Eleanor takes Frank to the island and he too becomes a vampire. Everybody vampire.
What the Movie Does Right
Byzantium is mostly well acted and well shot. The acting piece should not really come as a surprise considering the cast mentioned in the plot synopsis. Both Jones and Ronan are awesome in their roles and the have some chemistry on screen as well, making their most unlikely relationship a little more emotionally gripping. Likewise, Arterton is good in her role and the dynamic between the mother with her fast fuse and lying ways and her daughter who is much more of a down-tempo and old soul is entertaining to watch for the most part. Not going to lie - there were times where I wanted this movie to flip into a comedy because those two characters had some serious mother-daughter shenanigans they could have gotten into. Darned vampires.
Anyway, it’s also clear that Jordan has been around the directorial block about a billion times before this flick because there are some shots in this puppy. From gorgeous vistas and interesting, dare I say artsy, takes on how to visualize vampire to neat touches like some of the shots of Eleanor at the moments where she is at her most vulnerable which tend to focus on her eyes and add effects that seem to add age and wisdom.
What the Movie Does Wrong
I’m intentionally lumping things together a bit here but I’ll focus on two. Story and length. The story on this puppy is not nearly interesting enough to warrant it’s length, first of all. In fact, it feels like the non-linear format in which it is told actually pads the run time to an alarming degree. When we first went into this film, we are all a little dubious as to whether it would even be a horror movie, and thankfully the cold-open quelled those fears with a relatively awesome decapitation scene but if it weren’t for that, I would have been asleep, on my phone, or asleep on my phone by the 30 minute mark. Very little happens for large chunks of the movie and what you get are flashbacks to Clare/Eleanor’s origin story which play more like period drama pieces than anything you’d look for out of a genre film. There are just enough scenes interspersed throughout to keep your interest from completely leaving but the overwhelming quantity of the story feels unnecessarily drawn out and glacially paced.
On top of that, if you can maintain your focus on the movie, you’ll be treated to more questions than answers regarding why the Brethren are fucking terrible at what they do and why Clare and Eleanor have been unable to amass more of a stable way of existing in the several hundred years that this has been going on. In pretty much any reality, the Brethren would already be gone or Clare and Eleanor would have been killed. That everything comes to a head when Eleanor falls in love with a nice boy with caner is dumb.
Story: 5 - I know I put story under something the movie does wrong and I stand behind that (which is why it gets a below average score), but from a super high level, there is an interesting story here that I think is worth telling. The problem is that the screenplay couldn't get out of its own way and let the story happen. Too much time spent time traveling to establish the fucking status quo.
World-Building / Immersion: 3 - Annnnd this is where the above comes home to roost. This is borderline impossible to pay attention to. If it weren’t for some really interesting and well constructed shots and a general understanding that this movie is competent technically, it would have been even lower.
Scare-Factor: 2 - There is a lot of period drama and romance here. At least it’s not twilight.
Effects (or Judicious Lack Thereof): 7 - The sets and props in this film are great and for the most part there is nothing from the audio side that doesn’t back it all up competently. The more graphic scenes look good as well, but there are some instances where “stylish” cg touches actually look like shit.
Overall: 4 - While I feel like this is a competent movie featuring good actors/performances, it has too many issues from a storytelling standpoint to recommend - especially within the context of horror movies. Pass on this one.