A vampire movie that doesn’t scare, doesn’t thrill, doesn’t arouse and isn’t romantic cannot be counted a success. And yet, I feel I wouldn’t mind seeing Byzantium again. First of all, there’s a really interesting and attractive cast that brings something quirky and off-center to the material: the preternatural stillness of Saoirse Ronan, the way Jonny Lee Miller can turn his face to a profile shot and all of a sudden go from syphilitic middle-aged man to everyone’s idea of a cruelly sadistic ‘Mills and Boon’ archetype, or the way Gemma Arterton’s cheekbones and accent permit her to get away with a line like ‘let’s kiss in celebration of my wickedness’; or simply the sound of Sam Riley’s voice. And those are just the leads: there’s also Daniel Mays and Thure Lindhart and Caleb Landry Jones; all doing rare and interesting things with their body language and line-readings. The acting in the film is a fascinating ‘Experiment in Performing Gothic Now’. Lots of risks are taken and not all of them pay off but it’s riveting.
The film depicts a once grand, now seedy, seaside town in the Regency period and in the present, above and below ground. It also comments on the roles of men and women; then and now; in daytime and at night; in the seaside, in the town, and beyond; when they’re got souls and when they haven’t. Women then and now are shown to be at the mercy of men. We see them soliciting under the docks or fucked to exhaustion on billiard tables; we see them in Jane Austen gowns and in fuck me pumps; We see them giving birth in dirty beds or being born in streaming waterfalls, and it is significant that both types of birth are bathed in blood. Everything is shown at an oblique angle, through skylights or through the bars of windows and lifts, partially and at odd angles, that shows us intensely and richly coloured areas of a world obscured in darkness, and blurred by motion. Visually, the film dazzles and earns its name: it’s deeply coloured, there’s an orientalism to its conception (as there is to Dracula’s), and one is only shown things partly, tangentially, obliquely because they’re mysterious, unknown and perhaps unknowable.
The film is tautly structured as a process of revelation. Two women: one a whore, the other a prissy young girl who was bred for other things; one an angel bent on vengeance, the other an angel of mercy; one who wants to keep her secrets, the other who wants to write hers out. One a mother, the other a daughter; both raped by the same man: both chased by an order which wants to deny women the right of giving life. Moira Buffini’s screenplay, based on her play, is really a model of structure. Two thirds of the way through, the film seems to run out of steam, as if the marvelously structured screenplay and its dazzling telling, seemingly perfectly aligned initially, had each leapt into different and discordant dimensions.
The film directly references Hammer films but is too serious to offer the same pleasures (though it does have Arterton glorying in a waterfall of blood, an image worthy of any Hammer Horror). But the film’s very seriousness, which in some ways is a shortcoming, is also what makes it rich. Byzantium is a quasi feminist film that has very interesting and evocative things to say not only about gender politics but also about loneliness which is perhaps its central theme. You can see why the director of Mona Lisa (1986) and Interview with the Vampire (1994) would be drawn to this material and why he succeeds in extracting so much depth and beauty from it. Byzantium doesn’t quite work but it’s richer and more interesting, visually and thematically, than other films that on the surface seem to work better.