Director Neil Jordan returns to the blood-sucker genre eight years after Interview with the Vampire. In Byzantium, the ladies get the vampire treatment and the result is a strong showing for a horror film spiced with a philosophical subtext.
In Byzantium, debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival, we're introduced to Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) who can't help but want to share her story of living as a 200-year-old vampire. She reflects on her secrets with paper and pen while her companion Clara (Gemma Arterton) ensures her safety by any horrific means necessary.
The story looks at how Clara was involved in a love affair during the Napoleonic Wars, while at the same time Eleanor was abandoned as a child. The plot shifts from present-day England as the two female vampires seek to find a home, to the past histories of the duo and how they came to be these bloodthirsty monsters.
When Eleanor becomes entangled with a young boy (Caleb Landry Jones) their lives get more complicated. Eleanor begins wondering if she should play the ethical role of speaking her mind to her suitor, or keeping her ancient secret in the shadows. Ronan does a commendable job of showing the pain this secret causes her, while Jones is the standout young performer as a boy willing to do anything for the woman he loves.
Byzantium is more than just an avenue for Jordan to show off lady vampires hunting down their prey. By layering the film with a more thoughtful current, he lets us symapthize with the vampires and wonder how we'd react in those circumstances. Humanizing villains is what he did best in Interview, and Byzantium strikes the same note, which may turn off some viewers bored by Jordan venturing down an oft-trod path.
The thrills and violence in Byzantium aren't thrown in willy-nilly but instead added for thematic effect, to show what Eleanor and Clara have been confronting their entire lives over two centuries. To always feast on human blood takes its toll, and Jordan splendidly crafts a film that could be a metaphor for the many other ways we take advantage of others for our own gain.
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