Judge Gordon Sullivan spent a mid-afternoon in Byzantium.
Beautiful. Seductive. Deadly.
I love that directors have their obsessions. Where would we be if Cronenberg didn't love to look inside bodies or if Scorsese gave up the gangster picture? Neil Jordan seems to be obsessed with folk tales, from the well-known werewolf (The Company of Wolves) to the obscure Ondine (in Ondine, appropriately enough). He continues to circle back at regular intervals to mythic creatures roughly every ten years, and his fourth entry into the world of mythology is also his second vampire story: Byzantium. It features his trademark attention to period detail and thematic obsession with the dark side of attachment, but it doesn't have enough focus to be as hard-hitting as it clearly wants to be.
Facts of the Case
Clara (Gemma Arterton, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan, The Lovely Bones) are vampires. When the film opens, they're struggling to get by in a British city, with Clara taking on stripping and stealing to support her young charge, Eleanor. With a group of vampire aristocrats in hot pursuit, the pair traipse off to the countryside, setting up shop in an old hotel that Clara turns into a brothel. Eleanor tries to live a normal life while Clara supports them both, but when the vampire royalty come knocking, everything goes wrong.
Byzantium is Neil Jordan's first feature since his show The Borgias went into production. That show seemed like the perfect place for Jordan to work through his love of sex, violence, and period set pieces. Viewers thought otherwise, and the show was cancelled after three seasons. That would just be a minor historical footnote, except many of the problems of Byzantium seem to stem from Jordan prepping it like a series that had to be cut to a feature.
The film is based on a play by writer Moira Buffini, who also wrote the screenplay (and this is only the third Jordan film where he didn't have a hand in the script). The stage roots are obvious, focusing on two major characters—Clara and Eleanor—for much of the film, and with a lot of exposition-style voiceover that would be necessary to set up the world of the vampires in a stage production.
That's all well and good, and I can't fault the film's pedigree. However, most stage productions don't have the scale and scope of a Neil Jordan movie, and when he tries to take his sometimes-baroque style and mix it with the more modest aims of the play, the results simply aren't satisfying. That describes generally the problem with Byzantium—each individual piece works really well, sometimes rising to greatness. However, the pieces never work together. This is why I mention The Borgias—if the same elements had been strewn over a dozen episodes—starting out sleazy in a urban strip club before gradually sliding into the British coast, with fancy dress flashbacks to keep viewer interest, Byzantium might have been excellent. Instead, it feels like a hurried mash-up that can't decide if it wants to scare us, arouse us, or just make us think vampires are still cool.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's not all bad, of course. Neil Jordan still knows how to make a film that's beautiful to watch. The attention to detail in Byzantium is staggering. Whether it's the outfits that Gemma Arterton dons to seduce lonely, seaside men or the shabby sense of decay in their small-town hotel, Byzantium can be mesmerizing in its sense of visual detail. Even when I didn't care about the characters or disengaged from the narrative, I never felt bored or wanted to turn away because Jordan always presents a beautiful image or a fresh angle to keep the eye attuned.
The acting, too, can be quite good. There is some scenery chewing going on: give Jonny Lee Miller the role of a bad guy and he can't help himself, but overall the actors acquit themselves nicely. The two leads are especially impressive. Gemma Arterton could have been truly lazy in her role as Clara, allowing her body and clothing to do the work of seduction. Instead, she projects a calm sensuality that doesn't attempt to beat men into submission with her physical assets but instead lures them in with her (apparent) vulnerability. Saoirse Ronan is playing a variation of the tough-but-tender, old-before-her-time character she perfected in Hanna. However, even as a variation on a theme, she's utterly convincing as someone who has both lived a long time while being carefully sheltered. That mix of world-weariness and innocence is an impressive achievement, especially for a young actress.
There's also very little to complain about with Byzantium (Blu-ray). The 2.35:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is strong. Detail isn't perfect, but the slight softness is consistent and seems to be intentional on Jordan's part, creating a dreamier atmosphere that suits the material. Colors are bold and well-saturated, with the all-important reds in blood coming through with special attention (though no bleeding, if you'll pardon the pun). Black levels are also important, and they're generally deep and full of detail, with no noise or compression artifacts to muck things up. The film's DTS-HD 5.1 audio track is similarly impressive. Dialogue is clean and clear from the front, while the surrounds do a fine job of creating atmosphere. The voiceover sounds especially rich.
The disc's main extra is a set of interviews with a number of the people responsible for the film that total up to about 75 minutes worth of material. We hear a lot of production stories and get some insight into the filming of the feature, though the whole thing could have been more effectively edited. We also get the film's theatrical trailer.
Byzantium is an easy sell for Neil Jordan fans. Even if it's far from his best film, it has enough of his sensibility to tempt long-time fans. Vampire lovers too will appreciate the mix of blood, sex, and mythology crafted here, even if the film is a bit uneven. Everyone else should approach Byzantium with lowered expectations; there's some excellent acting and some beautiful imagery, even if it doesn't quite hang together.
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