NEIL JORDAN’S “BYZANTIUM” is his latest vampire movie. You may remember his first one: the gothic, homoerotic melodrama, “Interview with the Vampire”, featuring a blonde pompadoured Tom Cruise with the hots on Brad Pitt. At least there was some prescience on display. This new one is a deadly earnest, sometimes riveting, oftimes grindingly slow revisitation of the essential vampire trope: everlasting love.
But this is no “Twilight”. Jordan labours, as he is wont to do (remember “The Crying Game”), with themes of identity and belonging. With whom can a young vampire identify, if there are none others of its kind to identify with? It’s the sort of angst with with I’m sure we can all identify.
As the story begins, we are introduced to Eleanor (the ethereal, Pre-raphaelite looking Saorise Ronan who was such a presence as the young child in “Atonement”). She’s a sweet two hundred, sixteen year old and is torn between her need to tell her story – and establish to the world just who she is and the past from which she has emerged – and her duty to keeping her identity secret. So we see her writing it all down, only to tear the pages out and scatter them to the wind. It’s not an unlikely scenario for any sixteen year old, unsure of her place in a confusing world, in this vampiric coming of age tale. (Except she’s really two hundred years old. You think she’s have figured that out by now. Hasn’t she seen “Groundhog Day”?)
Her mother, Clara (a stunning, breast-baring Gemma Arterton – of “Quantum of Solace” – who really puts the vamp in vampire), is a whore, doomed to prostitution and an early consumptive death. Like Fantine without the songs. But unlike Fantine, she steals “the map” which leads her to the source of immortality and the lust for blood. Jordan’s quick pass at Clara’s own history and her drift into prostitution is entirely nonsensical, but it’s his handy plot device to serve up his secondary theme of the nature of love. “Byzantium” offers us the full panorama: her whorish, ‘commercial love’ is juxtaposed with her deeper maternal love (the former, she assures us, in service of the latter) and her daughter’s budding romantic love; the movie ends on a note of the eternal love the storyline drifts toward.
In a sense then, this is really a retelling of “Love Actually”, but without the fangs, and, you know, the heads being sawn off, the rivers turning into blood and the resurrection in a cave. Hmm, now where have I heard about that one?
But, identity will out, and not even vampires can escape their pasts, however troubling. Driven by the blush of sixteen year old romance, Eleanor completes the story of her and her mother’s past and gives it to her enamorata (a whimpish, dying Caleb Jones). The offer of her story to the boy is her offer of herself to another. He of course betrays her secret, and shows the story to his school teacher (channeling the plot of “In the House”) who, duh, thinks she’s, shall we say, batty.
Alas, the revelation of self comes with consequences, which in this case, are dire. It’s tough being a vampire. And when her story is read out by these uncomprehending muggles (an un-Rev like Tom Hollander), all hell breaks loose. But in a restrained, artistic way. This, we must remember is no B movie. It’s Neil Jordan. Maybe his next movie will be better.
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