Old Splat, by Sarah Brinks
The idea of vampires has clearly fascinated people for hundreds of years – both literal “blood drinking” vampires and the metaphorical kind of vampires have been a staple in film since the silent-era alone. Now, more then ninety years after F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, it can be said that there are few original or compelling films about vampires still being made. I had my doubts when I first saw the trailer for Byzantium, thinking it was another Twilight rip-off but with a better cast. I was fortunately wrong. Byzantium is a fresh, if not entirely original, take on the vampire story. Instead of focusing on a ludicrous love-triangle, vampire politics, or vampire superpowers, Byzantium focuses on the tragedy of immortality and the horror of having to take someone else’s life to sustain your own.
Byzantium stars Saoirse Ronan as Eleanor, a teenage vampire who travels around with her vampire mother, Clara, played by Gemmaa Arterton. Clara is one of those people who cannot be alone. She chooses to be a stripper, and sometimes a prostitute, as they go from town to town. Her daughter is the exact opposite. Eleanor prefers solitude. She writes the story of her and her mothers’ lives and then scatters it to the wind as a way of coping with her secret life. Eleanor catches the attention of another teenager, Frank, who is in remission from cancer. They are mutually fascinated with each other, but Eleanor fears their connection because she knows what she is. Eleanor is different from other vampires in the way that she feeds. She only drinks from people who give her permission, such as the elderly and the sick. Unlike other recent vampire films, Byzantium endows their vampires with only three traits that separate them from humans: when it is time for them to feed their thumb nail grows longer and sharply pointed so they can use to puncture their victims throats or wrist, they need to drink blood to survive, and they are immortal. They can die if they are beheaded, but beyond that, they never even grow old.
I mentioned earlier that I was afraid Byzantium was another Twilight rip-off but with a better cast, it isn’t a Twilight rip-off but it does have a great cast. Ronan seems to have wisdom beyond her years, or, as my grandma would say, she has an “old soul.” Eleanor has been alive for over a hundred years, so having someone play her who has some gravitas helps sell the character. Ronan has been great in everything I have seen her in so far, and I hope she continues to choose interesting projects. Gemma Arterton also delivers a dynamic performance. Clara was thrust into a life of prostitution at a young age and has never been alone for long since. She has carried that over into her life as a vampire and makes her a nice contrast to Eleanor’s loner tendencies. She also proves herself as a capable action star in Byzantium. The rest of the supporting cast is also excellent. A few standouts were Caleb Landry Jones as Frank, Eleanor’s love interest. The always fantastic Tom Hollander is one of Eleanor and Frank’s teachers. Also Jonny Lee Miller has a small role as Ruthven, a smarmy naval captain that forces Clara in to prostitution.
Byzantium’s cast is so strong that it gives them freedom to react realistically to the events that happen in the film. The realism is one of the major elements that I liked so much about Byzantium. Since there aren’t any lame CG vampire effects (except the thumb nail thing, which actually looks pretty cool) or forced love triangles, you never have to give the movie a pass. You buy that Eleanor and Frank become fascinated by each other because they are teenagers (or trapped in a teenage body), and they have both seen too much be fascinated by the mundane or everyday anymore. Byzantium also takes time to examine the relationship between mother and daughter. Clara is quite immature and Eleanor is wise beyond her years, but Clara is the adult and Eleanor is the teenager, so their dynamic is complicated at the best of times.
There aren’t a lot of special effects in the film, but the effects that they do use serve to push the plot forward and also look great. One effect in particular happens when someone becomes a vampire; a waterfall changes from flowing water to flowing blood. You see the churning water change from white to red; it is both haunting and beautiful. Since there isn’t any sparkling or super fast running, the effects in the few fight scenes look believable instead of corny.
I appreciated that Byzantium focused on the more fascinating elements of vampirism. Being immortal would be a great burden, especially if you were stuck as a sixteen-year-old. Needing to kill people in order to sustain your life would also be a great burden, not to mention having to keep your true nature a secret. Byzantium examines all of this while also telling an intriguing story. I really enjoyed Byzantium and the direction it took with the vampire genre.