Ventures into the realms of redefining what a vampire is, but not far enough for it to feel warranted
It's no wonder that I had high hopes for Byzantium - Neil Jordan is certainly a director of repute who shows little fear when it comes to being diverse in his subject matter. His accomplishments include The Company of Wolves which has become a classic in the fantasy/horror genre with it's intricately dark and twisted take on the werewolf, and his gritty and demanding The Crying Game had audiences confounded at his ability to weave an interesting and challenging tale. Lest we forget his show-reel “Mona Lisa” - Interview with a Vampire in which he took great pride in realising Anne Rice's screenplay with a brilliant dexterity and confidence. In case you didn't get the pun, he actually also wrote and directed Mona Lisa, which demonstrated yet another string to his bow in yet another genre, and bagged him several award nominations and won it's star, Bob Hoskins a BAFTA award for best actor, and a nomination for the Oscar for best actor back in 1987.
With such laudable credentials how can I not to get excited to hear that Jordan has returned to his roots with a dark re-imagining of the Vampire genre that boasts a decent looking cast (I don't mean just aesthetically, but that too) and great source material in Moira Buffini's screen adaptation of her own play, A Vampire Story. Sadly though, I felt it was a little lack-lustre in content, and although it toyed with the premise of the traditional vampire to a degree, it gets nowhere near hitting it's potential and, if anything, served more to highlight the fact that the genre is in dire need of rescuing. Despite it's wholly watchable format, it ends up being little more than a vehicle for Neil Jordan's rather endearing preoccupation with whimsy, and unfortunately only tantalises us with the prospect of a fresh interpretation on the vampire.
But it's not bad. It's a reasonably solid tale that I only occasionally felt a little bored with, even then, never long enough to feel like an endurance test. It follows the story of a protective mother Clara (Gemma Arterton) and fragile daughter Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), both immortals and hiding from a sinister confederation of vampires that has hunted them over the course of centuries with a view to extinguishing them both. Clara is painfully beautiful, and puts her looks to trade, earning a living as a working girl all with the pure hearted intention of protecting her daughter, Eleanor. When the pair find solace in a seaside town in a run down guest house, they begin to feel at home. Enough so that Eleanor allows a forbidden romance to flourish between her and an equally emo-esque boy, Frank. As their fondness for one another grows, so too does Clara's concern at her daughter's closeness to the boy. As the shady confederation draw their noose ever tighter, and Eleanor dares to reveal some truth to Frank about who she is, Clara must react in order to continue to keep them safe. As conflict around the two steadily increases, so too does the death toll.
Jordan tells his tale with a recognisable touch and a steady hand. Even the setting in which the majority of the movie takes place is robust and interesting – the decrepit seaside town that shows signs of once being a bustling holiday destination, sadly falling apart at the hands of time. Burned out amusements sit stranded on a broken pier, stony beaches with wet and cold rocks with wood strewn across them, grey clouds looming ominously above. At night time, the fairground all but deserted of tourists, in their place junkie prostitutes and snarling pimps occupy the dodgems performing seedy sex acts in porta-cabins on bespectacled and grey business men. It's a vivid picture he paints, and his two main characters fit in well with the look and feel of the British seaside town. Sean Bobbit exerts his skills for Jordan as Director of Photography straight off the back of the rather delicious looking A Place Beyond the Pines, and it's becoming more and more evident that this guy knows how to shoot a fairground with lights at night time.
As for the narrative, there's no questioning the fact that it's playing with the vampire genre. It's mixing things up a little and offering an alternative take on what a vampire is, and what they do. The problem is that if you're going to have a stab at redefining an idea, especially one so ridiculously popular as the vampire, I think you have to not shy away from really going for it. It feels like Neil Jordan is toying with letting himself go with telling us what a vampire really is, but bottles it at the last hurdle and settles for a mixture of vampire tale and romance tale. One thing Jordan does manage to do is to set himself and his interpretation of the vampire genre well apart from Stephanie Myers and her teen-angst interpretation of the genre and, for that, he must be applauded. The difference between the two is a message that's worlds apart; Jordan's message is that of the briefest romantic interlude in an life centuries long can be the catalyst for change in someone so conditioned against emotion and so rehearsed at the denial of it for themselves. Stephanie Myers' message was about how important it is to have a boyfriend.
It's a good attempt at switching up a genre that's over saturated these days, but perhaps an attempt that lacked the bravery required to really turn it on it's head and one that swerves any real responsibility that being playful with such a well established genre might require. Nevertheless, recommended.
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