My first introduction to all things vampiric was at the hands of Anne Rice with her fiendish brat-prince Lestat and ever so melancholy Louis. Rice’s books laid the foundation for my love of the blood-suckers, a love which continued to grow thanks to the dark, grotesque and romantic writings of Poppy Z Brite. Given the recent YA rendering of the bloody beasties into sparkling boyfriend material and the rather ridiculous True Blood (I know I’m in the minority with that opinion) I’m still very much a fan of vampire stories ala The Black Dagger Brotherhood and even the Vampire Diaries TV series (which is only marginally less ridiculous than True Blood, but somehow far more compelling to me – I think it’s all Ian Somerhalder’s fault). Anyway, point is, while I’m still a fan of vampires, it takes something really fresh and well-done to impress me, something like the Swedish Let the Right One In for example, which is why I haven’t rushed to watch Byzantium. However, being rather enamoured with Saoirse Ronan, I finally sat down to watch.
*Mild spoilers ahead*
Residents of a coastal town learn, with deathly consequences, the secret shared by the two mysterious women who have sought shelter at a local resort.
I don’t know who writes these IMDB descriptions, but could they get any more boring than this? How not to get viewers excited! Thank goodness the movie poster is stunning. With all that black on red, it just screams blood and horror and romantic vampire – yum! This movie started out by introducing us to a centuries-old, teenage-looking protagonist who writes down the story of her life and then literally tosses the pages to the wind. This almost cliche example of teenage angst made me a little squirmy. I know the girl is 16 but she’s been 16 for two hundred years, surely she’d be over teen angst and the inevitable coming-of-age existential crisis? I know the centuries-old teen is usually kept ‘teen-like’ in order to keep the character relatable for a YA audience, but it’s not very accurate. I can’t help comparing these characters to that of Claudia, Anne Rice’s child vampire who matures and ages, finally becoming frustrated that her physical appearance doesn’t match her psychological and emotional age. In Byzantium, however, the 200-year-old teenager becomes entranced by a very human teenage boy. I’m not even ten years out of my teens yet, and I’m already irritated/frustrated by teens and cannot imagine choosing to date one (aside from the potentially icky pedophilic connotations) as I simply don’t have that much in common with teens any more. I cannot imagine a 200-year-old vampire who has traveled extensively and lived through changing eras finding true love in a modern teenager, even if they are an ‘old soul’ – another tired trope often trotted out to justify the interest between immortal and hapless human.
Despite the cliches and the associated pitfalls, Byzantium had a lot going for it with the creepy vampire powers-that-be hovering menacingly in the background and the under-stated vamping that occurred. These vampires don’t tear out throats – they don’t even have fangs! – and the feeding they do is all rather sedate and civilized (wait, is that a good thing in what should be a horror movie?). The few moments of gore and horror in the film seem there merely for shock value without serving the overall aesthetic, which is rather disappointing.
Ronan shines in her role – as she usually does – and so does Caleb Landry Jones who plays her freckled love interest. Her mother, however, seems almost a caricature of the ‘bad mother’ stereotype, considering she’s a prostitute, who – despite two centuries of life experience – can’t think of another way to earn money. The rebellious teen-crappy mother dynamic seems totally contrived here. After two hundred years together, surely they’d be over that by now and would’ve established a more adult bond?
The way the plot unravels also wouldn’t be possible without Ronan’s character’s desperate need to establish her identity, to declare ‘I AM’ to the world and find herself – all very teen-like behaviours that are less convincing given that she’s two hundred freaking years old! The plot was definitely the weakest part of this film, a film that would’ve done better as an artsy character exploration with Lynch-ish overtones. At 2 hours long, the movie felt its length and was at times almost boring since there wasn’t a lot going on except for the angsting, and even when the menacing elder vamps did show up, their appearance was underwhelming and far too short lived to make an impact.
This movie could’ve been an intriguing character study keeping the paranormal stuff in the background, but at some point the film seemed to remember it was meant to be about vampires so cue the magical waterfalls of blood (literally) and ill-conceived, poorly explored paranormal arcanery. The explanation for the existence of vampires was paper thin and the lore the film tried to create was baffling and extremely sexist. I would’ve enjoyed this movie a lot more had we never found out how humans became vampires. Also, they’re vampires. They’re murdering, blood-sucking fiends – the attempt at moralizing them in this film didn’t add much except more confusion about the world-building. Last gripe? Voice overs. Can’t stand them, rarely need them, never ever want them in a film especially not when the voice over tells what’s been shown on screen anyway.
Dammit, Byzantium, I really wanted you to be brilliant. While the film was atmospheric and had some beautiful moments of great acting, overall I just didn’t buy the character dynamics or the world-building. This movie scores 2.5/5 ink-splats from me.