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Are vampires played out? The living dead who feed from the blood of the living have been horror’s most durable genre, despite seeming to have been exhausted years ago by endless recyclings of Count Dracula. But once in a while someone comes up with a new take on the story that makes it seem fresh, while investing it with capable, stylish filmmaking and performers who don’t simply treat it like genre work.

That wasn’t the case the last time Irish director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, TV’s The Borgias) tackled vampires with his 1994 adaptation of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. He’s much more successful this time, working with a script by Moira Buffini based on her play. (That it’s very hard to see how this could have been a play speaks to Jordan’s command of the screen.)

The word “vampire” is never used, and unless you’ve read a review like this (sorry, it’s unavoidable), you could get some ways into the film without realizing that that is what these characters are. They go by different names, but for our purposes they are Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) and Clara (Gemma Arterton, rather different than she appears in the current Unfinished Song).

Eleanor appears to be 16 and is obsessed with writing her biography—a story that, she tells us, “can never be told”—in notebooks whose pages she rips out and discards. Clara is less ethereal: She works as a stripper, and not the “look but don’t touch” kind.

Their life together in London is disrupted, and they move on to a seaside town, the kind of place where Brits vacation when they can’t afford anyplace else. It’s a routine Eleanor is tired of. Unlike Clara, she can’t discard the past to head ever forward into an endless future. And in this case she’s right: their past is catching up to them.

Byzantium takes this time parceling out its story and its version of vampire mythology. (That’s one of the ways new vampire tales keep our interest, by refusing strictly to abide to the standard version. When we see early on that Eleanor and Clara walk by day, we don’t know what else to expect about them.) The history that Jordan and Buffini eventually reveal is both original and compelling. And Jordan never treats it lightly. He takes seriously the notion of the pressures of eternal life, mirrored in the bleak surroundings these women in habit and the hard choices they make. It’s a rare and most welcome film, one made for a wider audience than the horror cultists who are usually so condescendingly treated by Hollywood.

Watch the trailer for Byzantium

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