This review has been republished from our coverage of the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.
Saoirse Ronan, as an actor, has a rare ability to project a depth of melancholy, even in almost total stillness. Her alarmingly blue eyes lend themselves to her playing characters that, as in 2011’s Hanna, are not entirely of this world. In her latest film, Byzantium, she plays a vampire, desperate after 200 years of living in secrecy to tell her story to someone. She writes it out in painstaking penmanship and then tosses the pages to the winds (sometimes literally) to whomever might find them.
Much of the film rests on Ronan’s performance, and the compelling sadness she projects, which helps ground the proceedings when they threaten to become excessively ridiculous. Byzantium is kind of a hybrid of “one for them” Neil Jordan and “one for me,” with the most immediate and obvious parallel in his career being 1994’s Interview With the Vampire, most assuredly an entry in the “one for them” column. Handsomely produced and deliciously melodramatic as it was, that picture was (love it or hate it) exclusively surface. Byzantium has its moments of titillating luridness, but also calls back to Jordan’s more serious and personal films, Mona Lisa in particular.
Byzantium is a bit of a mess in terms of storytelling, though. While the story it has to tell—the origin and subsequent fugitive centuries of Ronan and her mother, played by an actress (Gemma Arterton) only eight years her senior, itself a mystery in need of addressing—is a fascinating (if familiar) one, the way Moira Buffini’s script (adapted from her teleplay A Vampire Story) unfolds is a bit clunky, particularly in some of its expository contrivances (on more than one occasion, people are told long, plot-clarifying stories only to be immediately killed). This makes the first hour a bit of a slog, endurable mostly for Saoirse Ronan, though once all the pieces are in place and the shape of Byzantium as a movie is a bit more clear, it’s a fun pulp vampire story.
It is such because of its being familiar in some regards and novel in some others. Things like Ronan and Arterton being able to walk in sunlight are justified textually by their being referred to as “a ‘kind’ of vampire” rather than the thing itself. (They do not, thankfully, sparkle.) The bulk of the movie is concerned with them less as vampires than as women, with the Arterton-Ronan mother-daughter relationship explored at length. There being so little difference in the ages at which they’ve been frozen complicates things, as does the mother’s go-to means of support for them being sex work (done by her, never her daughter). The film takes a measured, layered approach to these, which leads to a richness in characterization that carries it through its plot awkwardness.
And so, Byzantium is not a great film by any measure, but it is a better one than one would expect (even as late as halfway through), and an example of the value of having a good director and cast involved. In addition to Ronan and Arterton, Sam Riley is quite effective in a smallish but key role, as is Caleb Landry Jones as a tragic young man who becomes quite taken with Ronan. If the whole of Byzantium is lesser than the sum of these parts, it’s because Jordan and the actors elevate the material, rather than the material creating the room for them to shine. Still, as vampire pictures go, you could do a lot worse.