by Cora Quigley
Neil Jordan’s latest feature is venturing down familiar territory and you could be forgiven for thinking that Byzantium is basically the female version of Interview with the Vampire. Certainly, there are similarities. Both deal with the theme of storytelling and how it can serve as a cathartic way of dealing with guilt. There are also some parallels between Saoirse Ronan’s character, Eleanor, in Byzantium and Brad Pitt’s character, Louis, in Interview with the Vampire, and also with Gemma Arterton’s Clara and Tom Cruise’s Lestat. And of course there are parallels with the whole vampire thing (though in Byzantium they are never out and out referred to as vampires, Jordan prefers blood sucking sucrients.) However that’s where the similarities end, because ultimately Byzantium is a far more unabashedly feminist look at the mythical creature than cinema goers might be used to in recent years, in addition to being what could be regarded as quite a unique take on it.
Byzantium tells the story of Eleanor and Clara, a mother and daughter pretending to be sisters who, for the last 200 years, have had a nomadic lifestyle of sorts. At the beginning of the film, Clara murders a mysterious man who seems to be pursuing her and her sister, which then forces the pair to move on yet again, this time to a seaside town. Clara, no stranger to using her sexuality as a means of survival, quickly utilises this once again to find themselves a place to stay and a new way of making them money. Eleanor, however, has grown weary of this way of life, and longs for a different one and a way of telling somebody about all that she has been through. However, before this dream can be realised, the very existence of the two women is suddenly threatened.
Byzantium fast engages due to the fact that it is quite an original vampire tale. Eleanor and Clara don’t have much in common with your traditional vampire, apart from their insatiable thirst for blood. They don’t need have to avoid sunlight, they aren’t confined to coffins for a place to sleep and there is absolutely no mention of garlic. There too is an inclusion of a vampiric brotherhood, which is an interesting concept that reinforces the film’s feminist tone, it being a sort of representation of a patriarchal institution that has no time for even considering the notion of having a woman amongst them.
While it certainly is a captivating tale, the film does feel a bit long and lags slightly in the middle. The backstory to how the main characters became sucrients is interesting; however it sometimes perhaps goes into a little too much detail, potentially leaving the viewer feeling bogged down by how convoluted the narrative feels at times. However, the negative aspects of the film are fortunately overshadowed by the strength of the central performances and also just how gosh darn pretty the film is. Arterton shines as a character that at first appears to be your typical, archetypal “tart with a heart” character. She never loses her agency, even in the face of grave danger. Ronan, like with everything else she has ever been in ever, is perfect as the gloomy and pensive Eleanor.
Byzantium, while an original look at the vampire story, isn’t a ground-breaking film by any means. Nevertheless, it provides a new and entirely more female perspective to the fictional world of the undead that will hopefully inspire other future female centric vampire texts that are beyond the scope of Twilight.