An early series of brief moments casts a pall over all of Byzantium. We see Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), a pretty teenager, writing in a diary that she soon proceeds to tear pages from, throwing them out of a high window. She comes upon an elderly man, who picks the pages up and regards the writing with admiration. Eleanor and the man retire to his dwelling, but the vibe of their encounter is paternal, not carnal. The man eventually tells Eleanor that he’s ready, and she slits his wrist with her supernaturally extended thumbnail, and drinks the blood as it spills from the wound. This man is eventually revealed to once have been one of Eleanor’s teachers, who had refused to believe her claim of her curse of parasitic immortality. But time always eventually indicates the ultimate truth.
Director Neil Jordan has certainly mined this terrain before. Byzantium is another of the director’s gothic fantasias that’s superficially set in the present (well, partially), though its heart clearly belongs to the past. It would be churlish to carp about an artist’s repetition, though, in the presence of such inviting craftsmanship. The film is rich in images that capture the erotically guilty primal power of fables. Reds and blues are velvety lush, and lamps emit an almost lunar glow as fog engulfs them. And there’s Eleanor’s vampire mother, Clara (Gemma Atherton), who Jordan frequently presents as a commandingly sexual quasi-femme fatale—a voluptuously earthy mother of death who’s eventually revealed to be a tragic victim.
But a good gothic isn’t just about looks; there are more daunting challenges to weather, namely of tone. A fusion of supernatural and romantic elements, the gothic narrative is also often driven by a theme of suppressed gratification, which is to say that significant leaps of empathy must be taken by contemporary audience members who’re accustomed to having what they want, whether it be a boyfriend, a girlfriend, a selfie, or a Diet Coke, right when they want it. The trick of a gothic is simple to define and difficult to achieve: They’re melodramas that allow you to drink in grand, often comfortingly quantifiable gestures of heartbreak, betrayal, love, and nearly cosmic cruelty, and, for these films to work, a director needs to sell you these emotions with an element of satisfying grandness that’s topped with just a pinch of relatable behavioral texture so as to pave the road for that all-valuable suspension of disbelief.
If Byzantium isn’t quite as effective as prior Jordan gothics such as The Company of Wolves, In Dreams, or Ondine, it’s because it’s somewhat stymied by narrative convention in a manner those films managed to evade, but it’s still empowered by the director’s disarming command of tone and confidence with actors. Ronan has been on the verge of breaking into stardom for several years now, and under Jordan’s guidance she conveys wounded everlasting suffering without turning her character, the film’s voice of conscience, into a priggish killjoy—a fate that befell Brad Pitt in Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire. Ronan communicates a sense of childish optimism that’s at war with the blossoming adult realization of the necessities of compromise—a subtext vital to gothic material that was missing from Kristen Stewart’s hopeless performances in the Twilight series. This film sweeps you up in a girl’s spell and enfolds you in the pleasures of the mechanics of storytelling, but it also gently, hauntingly alludes to those inscrutable adult challenges, and disappointments, that send us scurrying to storytelling for refuge to begin with.
The image is a little soft, but that’s clearly representative of the surreal, painterly aesthetic that director Neil Jordan intended. Otherwise, a conventionally strong transfer: Colors are vivid, most notably the reds (a color that’s almost always important to a vampire film), and the level of detail, particularly regarding the contextually varying skin tones, is impressive. Both sound mixes are lush and nuanced.
There’s about 75 minutes of collected interviews with most of the film’s prominent actors and craftsmen, and some interesting anecdotal production tidbits are shared, but the momentum is frequently interrupted by inexplicable cutaways to printed screens boasting the questions that are prompting the responses. A looser, more organic interview presentation would’ve been greatly preferable. The theatrical trailer is also included.
Yes, another Neil Jordan vampire movie, but a film this beautiful shouldn’t be taken for granted.