Imagine you are in a large store and off in the distance you see a quilt. It’s an intriguing design, and you walk towards it, fascinated. It’s really a gorgeous thing, brilliantly composed with designs depicting bizarre visions of well-known mythologies. You go up to it and it’s still beautiful, and you are captivated by that beauty, so captivated that you don’t realize it’s fraying at the edges. You reach out and touch it, but as you are running your hand along it, feeling the underlying materials, the beautiful thing completely falls apart.
That’s what watching Byzantium is like.
[This review originally ran as part of our coverage of the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival. It has been reposted to coincide with the theatrical release of the film.]
Director: Neil Jordan
Release Date: TBD
Country: United Kingdom
I wonder who decided to make actress Saoirse Ronan’s hair dark. She’s currently in a number of films, including the upcoming adaptation of Stephanie Meyer’s The Host (which sadly has no connection to Bong Joon-Ho’s 2006 film of the same name), and any of the various directors could have decided that the once–blonde star of Hanna should be a brunette. If it wasn’t Neil Jordan, though, he owes that person a debt of gratitude. There is something both off-putting and irresistible about a person with light blue eyes and darker hair, and it is an excellent visual representation of Ronan’s character in Byzantium. Eleanor Webb is a 200-year-old vampire living in an 18 year old’s body, someone at once terrifying and fascinating.
Vampires in Byzantium are, to put it mildly, different from those in general vampire lore, right from their appearance: they don’t have fangs. Instead, their thumbnails extend and sharpen, perfect for puncturing a major vein or artery. They can see themselves in mirrors, aren’t affected by sunlight, and aren’t particularly averse to garlic or crosses or anything of the sort. They seem to be a bit stronger than the average person, but not significantly so, and though they are surely more durable, a blade to the neck leads to a swift end. The most notable trait they retain from the mythology, in fact, is the invitation requirement so brilliantly captured by 2008’s Let the Right One In. That being said, this is relevant only twice and the rules of invitation are not entirely clear.
For example, Eleanor Webb is a brilliant piano player (as she would have to be after centuries of practice), but she demonstrates it by walking into an old-folks home and sitting at the piano and playing. No one knows who she is or why she’s there, but she sits down and plays nonetheless. I loved the scene because I loved the music, but she did just kind of walk in without an invitation. The vampiric detectives who follow Eleanor Webb and her actually-monstrous black-haired, brown-eyed mother Clara (Gemma Arterton) also don’t seem to need prompting when they arrive at a person’s door, but maybe it’s the technicality that the people behind the door are oftentimes dead. If there are rules, they really aren’t explained very well.
I imagine people are wondering how Byzantium tacks up to Neil Jordan’s other vampire film, Interview with a Vampire, and I have to say that I can’t tell you. I haven’t seen Interview with a Vampire, and though I considered doing so to give some more context to this review, I decided against it. Instead, I’ll compare it to another Jordan monster movie, The Company of Wolves. That film, a werewolf story, follows a Little Red Riding character, and I feel that Byzantium is the same way. It’s not just that Eleanor Webb wears a red hooded coat, but it’s the idea of a naive girl who is led away from her path into some sort of temptation. In this case, her temptation is a sickly ginger boy named Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), and the temptation is to tell her story. The story is one she has written many times on pages that she has thrown to the wind or the sea or pretty much anywhere at all, so long as no one else could see them, but she decides that Frank is the one to break the… Hmmm… The umm…
You know what? I don’t really know. What exactly does she think telling Frank is going to accomplish? And how is it that in the nearly two hundred years she has been with the evil Clara (who goes around prostituting herself for money, something Eleanor has thus far avoided) and not once slipped up and told somebody? She may look like she’s 16, but she’s nearly two centuries old. At some point, Little Red Riding Hood’s naivete goes from being sad to just pathetic. If Little Red were 200 years old, no one would feel for her when she was taken in by a wolf in her grandmother’s clothing. And even if we are supposed to believe that somehow someone can remain so stupidly pure and innocent for such a long time, how do we explain that her innocence was forcibly taken from her nearly two centuries before the start of the film? Unless she’s supposed to have reverted to some infantile stage or something, I don’t see any way to justify her actions, and if she was supposed to have reverted, well she didn’t go far enough.
And here’s where the threads start to show. As I watched Byzantium, I was struck by the beautiful cinematography and the haunting soundtrack, and I felt like I was watching something truly incredible. When I watch movies for review, I keep a general sense of what I think my final score will be in my head. Sometimes when the review is written the score at the bottom will fit nicely in that spectrum, and sometimes it won’t, but I try to gauge my own reaction to a film as I’m watching it. With Byzantium, that number was high, much much higher than the number you’ll see below, and that’s because I was swept up by the audiovisual splendor of it all. As soon as it ended, I turned to Hubert and asked him what he thought. He liked it quite a bit less than I did (as you’ll read below). We started talking about it immediately (and another critic got very angry at us) and everything he said made a lot of sense. And after that conversation, as I mulled it over in my head, I realized I had been taken in.
Were Byzantium nothing more than a piece of entertainment, this would actually be quite a commendable thing. It would be like watching a Christopher Nolan film. Inception is amazing and gorgeous and a spectacle, but it also makes no goddamn sense when you realize that there is an entire week of missing time on the first level of the dream. It’s a stupidly large plot hole that would completely destroy the impact of the movie if it were going for art and impact, but it’s not. It’s just damn fine entertainment. Byzantium wants to be art (and maybe a little bit of entertainment) but can’t hold up its end of the bargain. It’s a great-looking film, and I definitely think it’s worth watching, but understand that what’s onscreen is actually a sham. The underlying framework is every bit as shoddy as a dream within a dream within a dream.
Hubert Vigilla: I really admired the vampire lore of Byzantium, with its centuries-long roots, its deadly brotherhoods, and its striking imagery of starlings and blood. There’s also a unique spin on gender and tradition in this vampire mythology that’s promising for greater exploration. While I think all of that is really rich material to play with, Byzantium ultimately feels like a dud of a story set in a dynamite universe.
A lot of that has to do with the character Eleanor, who’s underwritten and underconsidered. Ronan’s performance is fine, but Eleanor the character is too naïve for someone around 200 years old. It’s as if she’s still a teenage girl who’s never even kissed a boy on the cheek, but we know that she’s lived a hard and brutal life in a cruel world as a vagabond/grifter. More than that, she’s been surviving basically on the run the entire time with the much savvier Clara, who by contrast is a fully realized character with an actual sense of history behind her.
Eleanor has a strange impulse to share her life story with others, but I still don’t know what she hopes she’d gain from it. A normal life, which would be impossible since she’s ageless and immortal and hunted? Acceptance in a world that doesn’t believe in vampires? While it doesn’t make sense in-story, it’s at least a convenient device to drop large chunks of exposition when needed. Since this is never made clear, Eleanor gummed up the entire film for me. I’m also not sure what I make of her fledgling romance with Frank since it never once struck me as believable. They don’t even have an awkward chemistry together; they’re just plain awkward. 50 — Average