“Nobody must know.” These words are an express wish asserted by the ageless characters of Byzantium, Neil Jordan’s return foray into vampire lore. To be a vampire is to be segregated, distant; an Other in the eyes of the common man. These manifestations follow from a tweaked rulebook and are therefore free to wander around in the sunlight as they please; hence, their ability to slot into the unexceptional everyday world, with no super-strength or sparkly skin to boast of, infers an atypically physical human slant to stale vampire mythology. Here, being a vampire is unquestionably a disadvantage, a colossal burden, an unglamorous disease of utmost secrecy.
Knowledge is, universally, the greatest burden of all. To know the entirety of these people – from the standpoint of a viewer or a fellow character – is to shatter the puzzlement that composes their allure. Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) is the first; an unassuming, introverted young (old) girl invested in literature, her talent realised through impeccable classical handwriting and a firm grasp of the English language. Her vampiric lineage is the immovable encumbrance between her and the rest of society, an ironic taboo of which no one yet possesses knowledge. She is dead even in life, existing arbitrarily between those contrasting spheres. Vampires often have the urge to kill to sustain their energy levels, but Eleanor’s moral compass permits her only to take the life of those already on their way to death’s door. Much like Eleanor, the withering old lady in the hospital has one foot in the afterlife yet painfully lingers on in the mortal world.
Eleanor’s mother Clara (Gemma Arterton) adopts a divergent ethical approach attuned to the judicial vanquishing of oppressive patriarchal frameworks. Dually pursuing and giving chase, she escapes with her daughter to Hastings, where they shack up with tubby waster Noel (Daniel Mays) in his dead mother’s fanciful apartment house. Clara wastes no time in transforming the abode into a brothel for women formerly at the mercy of their respective slave masters.
Jordan employs an aesthetic disparity between the two sisters right from the off. Eleanor drifts ruminatively in reserved environments of lukewarm light, trailed by a recurring piano piece that haunts her struggle to connect with local boy Frank (Caleb Landry Jones). Opposing Eleanor’s silent suffering is the carefree conduct of Clara, photographed in arenas of flickering lights and faster movement.
The contemplativeness can’t hold forever in the hands of a director whose narrative impulse necessitates a progressive lurch forward, and the pacing’s tug-of-war eventually yields to Clara’s more frenetic mode of living. Further characters are introduced to facilitate narrative clarity; these include Tom Hollander as an inquisitive schoolteacher, and a sinister group known as The Brotherhood of which Sam Riley’s Darwell is a key member.
The somewhat intimate Hastings tale has now expanded into the world and throughout time. The cast additions send the film hurtling backward into a thorough exploration of vampire mythology, overstuffing century-spanning character arcs into a 2-hour timeframe that had hitherto accommodated a comfortably smaller story. It’s debatable whether the history lessons are truly mandatory to understand or connect to the present-day emotional pull or simply included to pay lip service to generic mythological conventions. It’s feasible that Hastings just couldn’t harbour the grandiose imagery that Jordan appears especially proud of, such as the mystical cave whose surrounding waterfalls of flowing blood are continually referenced in assumption of audience awe.
The accumulation of information and acceleration of pace into a frenetic sprawl toward the finish line leaves little room spared to savour any of the intermittently pleasant imagery, such as the seductive glide of sharpened fingernails across a sheeny surface. As events quicken, so too do the edits, and the propensity for the visual field to further furnish a healthy splattering of guts and gizzards.
Everyone knows everything at the end of it all, for better or worse. That isn’t to say everybody makes it out unscathed; for the human characters especially, knowledge-as-a-burden is realised in the bloodiest fashion and, in one case, veiled as a deceptively happy ending. But how does the enlightened audience fare? In the film, the vampires enjoy closeness with their human counterparts under false pretences, before provoking a hostile reaction with their revelation of the unwelcome secret. The same can be said for the text and its audience; once the preferable mood of the first half opens up its flesh to reveal its underlying bones, the incentive to regard it as a serious work diminishes substantially, as does the desire for a return trip.
Sci-Fi London 2013 runs 30 May – 6 April at Stratford Picturehouse and BFI Southbank