Byzantium, 2012

© StudioCanal (UK) © IFC Films (US)

And I was ’round when Jesus Christ
Had his moment of doubt and pain
Made damn sure that Pilate
Washed his hands and sealed his fate – Rolling Stones; Sympathy for the Devil

The vampire genre has been treated by various storytellers in many different ways. Through the ages, The Count, that once was, has either been shown as a disheveled, repulsive creature feeding on rats; or it has turned to its Stoker origins and has held on to his rank of the dark-prince. Someone who is rather a resplendent, a suave person with fine tastes and an exquisite wardrobe and the undying thirst for blood, which keeps him from aging.

This immortal Prince of Darkness has inspired some of the best and worst pieces of art. Byzantium is one of the better ones. Having said that, the liberties it takes with some of the most fundamental peculiarities of the vampire lore do not blend too well with the rest of the plot, which itself is mirthful, lifeless; nevertheless, director Neil Jordan (The Good Theif, 2002) is a patient, subtle, autere whose films have a tendency to conceive an alluring atmosphere and a chillingly moody ambiance where both, the keen viewer and the performers can handle their parts quite naturally, irony or not; with contemporary characters struggling to suspend their disbelief in vampire lore and the viewers’, with formal beauty and hand-to-heart (in hand, pulsating) performances. Everything is calculated, the unexpected laugh isn’t forced and neither is the long stare at the ever rising and settling bosom. No matter how fragile the script is, or how tight the corset is, Jordon’s qualities more than just make up for those through the telling of a compelling bluesy vampire melodrama, our very own little goth sleepover.

Apart from that, the film pleases. Writer Moira Buffini, on whose play the film is based, falls shot of switching to film straight from the stage, and things get lost in translation but never mind, we have Neil Jordon to sort things out and he does more than just sort out the ‘vampire lore from the Caribbean folk tradition of soucouyant’* Plus, Buffini, adapting her own stage play, “A Vampire Story”, counters the immaterial plot, she steers clear of the inclusion of pop culture’s fascination with sexualized gore, which is turning out to be tasteless and boring, and instead focusses mainly on history, folklore, feminist spirit, and universal themes. Gemma Atterton (Quantum of Solace, 2008) is a luscious Amazonian goddess, not at all like the one who played the part; Amber Heard as Mera. The keen viewer can sense humilityfrom a mile away, either that or the keen viewer is a Johnny Depp (Black Mass) fan and an Instagram/Twitter addict.
Atterton
is also a Bond girl, who plays a lady of the night (no pun intended) in this one, however, she is one sinfully sensual creature who doesn’t need supernatural powers to put men into a trance. She slips through a frame rather than move through it, and leads it gently forward with the filmmakers holding us in thrall every time she is on-screen. Costume designer Consolota Boyle, production designer Simon Elliot, and genius director of photography Sean Bobbit negotiate with neon lighting, the dominance of Bram Stoker’s over-bearing novel from 1897.

In the era of superheroes tossing around CGI skyscrapers, wreaking big-budget chaos, and what have you, the intuitive ability of human beauty is almost forgotten. Not here though, in Byzantium, Jordon makes sure that his actors and especially Atterton are passionately photographed, showcasing intense emotions even if she is only taking a walk across the room, and it is for a reason, and not just for the close-up on the rupturing cherished bosom secured tightly by a laced bodice, skintight lycra, and the stilettos.

The elevator that once carried a shattered Harry Angel to hell

Byzantium is a pretty broad drama, ghoulish in a trivial way that’s unique to folks who haven’t experienced much real violence or loss, it is also confident and the momentum with which it carries itself, dignified and exalted. Living as an immortal, amassing capital and reputation and identity is nearly impossible, just like how it is in the gay debate (malice afterthought) from The Old Guard, 2020, therefore, vampires would have to be anonymous black-economy transients (the Byzantium boarding house was once home to the asylum seekers of central Europe).

Here, the double-stranded narrative deals mostly with what vampire films deal with these days, preaching in the form of metaphorically accepting an addict into the society, an addict that poses a fatal threat to all. Add to it the self-assertive performance of Atterton and we have a high-octane film, balancing with certain bruised caution. Arterton’s sarcastic impertinence is something of great fascination, coupled with Eleanor‘s (Saoirse Ronan) angelic brooding makes this a startling watch as the camera closes in on grief and longing.

I’ll let you, with the help of centuries-honed judgment, decipher the bloody tale itself, besides that Gemma Arterton is true vampire material. Her sparrow eyes and stark features, combined with the goth make-up, add to give us a sultry Clara who will spare no one and who no one will spare since we are now in the territory of an English seaside town, which is the metaphoric end of the line as narratives would have it.

If you’ve watched and liked Låt den rätte komma 2008 and felt an inclination towards the character of Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) and his mysterious friend, you’ll love this one.

Do not go in expecting your run of the mill vampire film. This is Jordan and the last time he dealt with the subject, we were left with a long shot of Tom Cruise as Lestat drove along the highway while the Guns n’ Roses cover of Sympathy for the Devil played in the back.

Wonderful stuff.

*Manohla Dargis writing for The NYTimes

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