Film review: Byzantium

Necking: Gemma Arterton sates her vampiric appetite without any fancy dentistry in sight. Picture: Complimentary
Necking: Gemma Arterton sates her vampiric appetite without any fancy dentistry in sight. Picture: Complimentary
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THERE are currently so many vampires flapping around movies that new additions tends to get boxed by age, genre and state of mind.

Byzantium (15)

Director: Neil Jordan

Running time: 118 minutes

Rating: * * *

We’ve had Twilight, which sent tween hearts ­arrhythmic at the prospect of being sucked by Edward ­Cullen. More classically, there’s an origins story for Dracula scheduled for 2014. And last year there was Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, aimed at the Dude, Where’s My ­Vampire? crowd.

Neil Jordan’s new film ­Byzantium covers about three vampire film groups. The vampires are young women: so that’s the youth market taken care of. They are vampires with a twist to the usual bloodsucking rules, which may send out a bat signal to the postmodernists. And the vampires are suffused in Jordan’s trademark melancholy and violent overtones – so hello there, goth romantics. Jordan has plenty of experience in horror: The Company Of Wolves and Interview With The Vampire also dealt with myths, miracles and unlikely spirits in the recognisable world, whilst defying ­archetypes and conventions. Byzantium’s main vampires seem to be a sister act of Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), and from early on, it’s established that they are fine walking around in daylight, show up in mirrors and quite enjoy watching Dracula: Prince Of Darkness on TV. Their refuge tends to be drab flats or dilapidated guest houses, rather than a crypt, and they don’t even have the traditional fancy dentistry; these vampires use extendable thumbnails to pop veins, and filter their kills to the unconvivial, or those who would ­welcome death.

Flashbacks dripfeed a backstory, with Jonny Lee Miller, an even more syphilitic version of Flashman, seducing an innocent Clara in between Napoleonic Wars and setting her off on a journey of sex, then blood. Eleanor is more of a poetically moody vampire, taking solitary walks, or writing out her life story in her journal then shredding it into the wind. On the page she sounds irredeemably dour, but as we’ve seen in Hanna And The Host, Ronan is terrific at playing pale, otherworldly teens, even when the movies are pale young adult imitations of other films, such as La Femme Nikita and Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. When a teenager (Caleb Landry Jones) with leukaemia is beguiled by her, she generates some tension as to whether Eleanor’s interest in him will be as a mortal, or a morsel. The women are being hunted not by Van Helsing with a stake, but an ancient vampire order led by Sam Riley, which has an even stricter admissions policy than Twlight’s Volturi. Vampirism is apparently a Men Only club; which sets up all sorts of toothsome possibilities regarding undead sexism, but Moira Buffini’s script is a bit muffled on this. Instead, it ruminates on Eleanor and Clara’s contrasting attitudes to immortality. Eleanor seems to have spent 200 years perfecting her piano playing, and has signed up for a creative writing course with Tom Hollander. If vampires could take evening classes in upholstery and cordon bleu, she might well be attacking sofas with a staplegun or tackling lobster bisque.

Meanwhile, Clara seems happy enough supporting them through the centuries through stripping and prostitution. Still, eye-catching though both performances are, Byzantium remains an indecisive oddity with ­Jordan’s rhythm of reverie never quite finding its groove.

Twitter: @SiobhanSynnot

On general release from Friday