Review: ‘Byzantium’

This review was originally published on September 10, 2012 as part of's coverage of the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.

Dear Neil Jordan's "Byzantium,"

It's not you, it's me.

You are so beautiful, so earnest. You are going to make a moody, gothic fantasy fan so happy one day. And I'll be there to cheer you on, proud of your world-building efforts, your evocative photography and unique mother-daughter dynamics. I'm so sorry I won't be able to ever say I love you (or even like you), but I admire you, and I know that you'll do well.

While your spirit is pure and eternal, I simply have no more room in my life for a tale of ennui-besotted vampires, wandering for centuries in their prison of stunted age.

As Eleanor Webb, Saoirse Ronan haunts a British seaside resort looking like an extra in a Depeche Mode video, catching the eye of the sickly Frank, played by Caleb Landry Jones. Her mind is elsewhere, however, reflecting on the two hundred years of hiding in plain sight in different towns with her "older sister" (really, her mother) Clara, played by Gemma Arterton.

Clara, who photographs fairly well if you haven't noticed, has been keeping the family unit safe via the world's oldest profession. With two centuries of johns under her unbuckled belt, she's good at spotting someone she can exploit, so when a nervous man with access to an empty hotel comes her way, she's quick to jump. Soon she and Eleanor move in, giving the eternal tween more time to sulk.

"You can't throw the past away!" Eleanor yells to her hot, hot, hot (hot) leather pants-wearing mother, before ending up in a classroom and writing down her life story.

In prose that ought to feed the ever-hungry beast of young adult fiction, Eleanor explains how an evil captain betrayed and essentially gang-pressed her mother into prostitution. Eleanor was sent to an orphanage, but after an act of vengeance and violence, they both found themselves blessed/cursed with eternal life and a thirst for human blood.

There are maps and caves and waterfalls of blood, and it is all so very beautiful, but the story-within-the-story-within-the-story becomes so weighted with iconography that I just shut down. Truth be told, the story of the prostitute mother in a seaside town, her moody piano-playing daughter and the leukemia-stricken boy she loves is far more interesting than the tale of two vamps. It also reminded me of Neil Jordan's wonderful 1991 picture "The Miracle."

Far be it from me to ever reject imagery of Gemma Arterton in a bodice, but I found myself agreeing with her emotionally scarred character: focus on the present and don't look back.

"Byzantium" is cut together so cleanly it becomes dull. There's not one moment of levity in the whole picture. The nuggets revealed during the third act are interesting enough, but laid out like this, it just sounds like more, "Blah blah, vampire curse, blah." "Byzantium" writer Moira Buffini also penned screenplays for "Tamara Drewe," which starred Arterton, and Cary Fukunaga's "Jane Eyre." Perhaps appropriately enough, she is also adapting the gothy YA sensation "The Night Circus" for the screen, as well.

Then again, what some of us consider a slog, others will eat up with a fork and a spoon. It isn't just the bright colors and the costumes but every visual aspect of "Byzantium" that sings. Neil Jordan knows where to put the camera. It's just a shame he wasn't able to inject a little life inside that frame.

SCORE: 5.9 / 10