J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Byzantium: Neil Jordan Takes on the Undead Again

Evidently, vampirism is supposed to be an old boys’ club.  Eleanor and her sister Clara are certainly not boys.  At least they are old, but they hardly look it.  Immortality is a strange existence for them in Byzantium (trailer here), Neil Jordan’s worthy return to the world of the undead, which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

For two hundred years, Eleanor has been a mixed up teenager.  She routinely writes the story she is forbidden from telling, casting her words to the wind.  Eleanor also drinks human blood to survive, but she only “takes” those who are ready and willing to go.  She was whisked away from her orphanage and turned eternal by her “guardian” Clara.  Ever since, they have not-lived on the run, eluding a cabal of male vampires who never sanctioned either woman joining their ranks.

Clara does not have Eleanor’s scruples.  She is a survivor, typically falling back on her old profession—the oldest one.  Even though she haunts the sleazier spots in town, she finds a decent enough chap to shack up with in Noel.  He happens to have a vacant hotel they can use as a base of operations—the Byzantium.  Despite Clara’s insistence on secrecy, Eleanor feels increasingly compelled to share her story, which is a dangerous proposition.

Adapted by Moira Buffini from her stage play, A Vampire Story, Byzantium offer some intriguing twists on the familiar vampire mythos (the hat tips to Byron and Polidori are also nice touches).  Yet, it is driven by the telling of the tale, which establishes quite a compelling fairy tale vibe.  Jordan masterfully handles the flashbacks, while maintaining the eerie mood.  He also deftly incorporates music into key scenes.  There is an elegant lushness to Byzantium, much in the tradition of Jordan’s previous supernatural films and the better Hammer Horror productions.

Somehow, Saoirse Ronan projects both teen angst and world-weary resignation.  It is a rather soulful portrayal of the soulless.  A fully committed Gemma Arterton impressively vamps it up in every way possible as Clara.  Sam Riley adds a dash of Twilightness as the mysterious vampire Darvell (revisiting the seaside locale of Brighton Rock) with Thure Lindhardt (from Eddie the Sleepwalking Cannibal) and Uri Gavriel (the blind prisoner of the pit in Dark Knight Rises) bringing some global genre cred in supporting roles.

By supernatural genre standards, Byzantium is unusually engaging on an emotional level.  It is a stylish production, bolstered by some evocative sets and locations.  Highly recommended for those who prefer their vampire films moody and brooding rather than gory, Byzantium opens this Friday (6/28) at the IFC Center.

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