Throughout Byzantium, 16-year-old Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) writes of what she cannot speak—a bit archaically, yes, but she is, after all, over a hundred years old. Living with an older sister, Clara (Gemma Arterton), who might actually be her mother, the cagey lass is almost absurdly forthright on paper, ostentatiously recalling her life story in a notebook before scattering its pages to the wind. She remembers all, a painful burden the customarily nuanced Ronan allows us to almost feel ourselves, though Eleanor’s propensity toward self-mythologizing rarely registers beyond a conceit, and one that works double duty as pseudo-voiceover and equally convenient linking device between horrors past and present. But there’s poetry nonetheless to the way the girl says she’s haunted by the history that perpetually walks alongside her as the soundtrack swells with the sound of the ocean, its waters a constant backdrop to a fairy-tale-like account of women struggling across time to author their own destinies.
Neil Jordan’s film takes its title from a boardwalk-facing guesthouse whose owner, Noel (Daniel Mays), takes a fancy to the manipulative Clara and where she and Eleanor shack up following the grisly demise of a mysterious man who chases after the women for reasons likely related to their mutual hunger for human blood. But the title, like the once luxurious building itself, is symbolic of a bygone empire, an idea that Jordan conveys with Grimm-like visual lucidity in striking wide shots that home in on the rot that’s taken over the boardwalks of Hastings, East Sussex like a cancer. And just as the Byzantium hotel has fallen, so too have the people who haunt its periphery like ghosts of their former selves. While Clara, a vampire in more ways than one, lures the local whores into the Byzantium, transforming it into a bordello, Eleanor enrolls at a local school, confounding teachers with her retrograde prose and slowly, begrudgingly, allowing herself to fall for a boy, Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), who senses in her a kindred spirit, and whose sickly white skin might have pegged him as a vampire in Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire.
Byzantium is at its richest, its most poignant, when fixating on the turmoil of the dead and dying. Eleanor, who only drinks the blood of those at death’s door, suggests a cat at a convalescence home attuned to the downward swing of the Grim Reaper’s scythe, and it’s a testament to Ronan and Jordan’s talents and daring that the ritual by which the girl feasts on the dying is both erotic (her pleasure is unmistakable in the slow dance her curved fingernail makes across human flesh) and alive with moral purpose, and all without ever feeling contrived. Even more transfixing is her relationship to Frank, who hunts for her attention with the same fraught sense of desire that informs her hunger for blood. He’s drawn to her by her beauty and similarly pitiful sense of withdrawal from the world, but it’s his own crisis of the blood, a disease that cruelly pushes him toward death, that truly brings them together, and madly so. In a sense, Eleanor is herself a symbol of empire, stolid in her adherence to an inflexible belief system that sustains her being, though her convincingly articulated ardor for Frank is no fall, only renaissance.
But Byzantium isn’t so interesting whenever it looks back in time or fixates on anyone other than these two love birds. Notwithstanding the deliriously swoony depictions of the rocky temple from which bats flutter and rise in helix-like synchronicity and rivers of blood flow in perfectly choreographed response to the abstract birth of the vampire, Jordan’s depiction of how Clara was made a whore before she was reborn a bloodsucker isn’t quite so audacious, less Ken Russell’s The Devils than drab Masterpiece Theater. In the present, Clara and Eleanor are pursued by other vampires for reasons unknown, and in the past the true nature of their creation is revealed with such dullness, a sense of compulsory quota-filling not unlike that of most Stephen King endings, as to register as an afterthought. The revelation that Clara is hunted because she wormed her way into a lifestyle entitled only to men is fascinating, but the cost of Jordan unnecessarily treating this plot point as a surprise for viewers is Clara’s transformation into a cipher. She may be a more conventionally volatile vamp than Eleanor, but there’s no sense of her rage, so often directed at men, or her plying the world’s oldest profession in a present far more liberated than her past as feminist uprising. Forlorn depictions of love and death may dignify Byzantium, but narrative withholding ultimately drives a stake into its unmistakable heart.