BYZANTIUM, the new filum – that’s the Irish in me coming out - from Neil Jordan has so many things going on that it fails to satisfy on any level. It’s another one of his ‘end of the pier’ movies, like MONA LISA before it, set in a seaside town, the fictional Northhaven – trust me, you don’t want to go there for a holiday. It deals with a mother-and-daughter vampire team perpetually on the run – for two hundred years, in fact. It examines the hunger to tell stories, especially those which cannot be told; if you know the women’s secret, you’ll have to join them or be killed. It posits vampires – or rather sucreants as they are called here – as part of a brotherhood known as the Nails of Justice – they should be called Fingernails of Justice. They are like the Justice League of America, only a bit crap. (Did they kill Hitler or Stalin? Oi don’t tink so.)
‘I write my story and cast it in the air,’ says the perpetually sixteen year-old Eleanor Webb (Saoirse Ronan), the daughter of Clara (Gemma Arterton), who herself does not look a day older than 240 – I meant 24. Within the first few minutes, you wonder whether Eleanor isn’t a vampire condemned to walk the Earth in eternity, rather a perpetual messy pup. Just imagine – 200 years of telling her to clean up her room! Still, her floating pages attract the attention of an old man who believes ‘there is a story there’ (no ship!). He invites her into his home to show her his photo album, which also contains some retrieved pages written by Eleanor. He invites death. She grows a long thumb nail and gives it to him.
Eleanor represents the compassionate side of vampire behaviour. Clara works the streets for money. We first see her in a lap dancing club with Arterton wearing an extreme push-up bra. (This will justify the price of admission for some people, I suppose.) When a customer gropes her, Clara scratches his nose. Her boss fires her. Then a stranger comes looking for her. Cue a chase by foot through the city streets which ends with Clara being apprehended on a bouncy castle (don’t ask, but it is the one of the film’s few money shots). The pursuer goes back to Clara’s place, whereupon she beheads him with a cheese cutter. ‘Pack your things,’ Clara tells Eleanor, after the latter has returned from drinking the blood of the old man, as she prepares to torch the flat and scarper.
This is an atypical sequence. Jordan does not really do action. His writer, Moira Buffini, adapting her play, ‘A Vampire Story’, isn’t interested in the bloody stuff either. The mood of the film changes as the pair head north, sleeping in a field amongst frost-bitten cabbages, the nearest the film comes to visual poetry. Where there are women selling sex, Clara can make a living, and she chances upon a lonely man (Daniel Mays) whose mother had just died and who lives in the top two rooms of a building known as Byzantium. (This is just one of those details that doesn’t ring true.) Clara decides to turn the old guest house into a brothel and takes out – literally – the local pimp in a seaside kiss that goes on too long. Meanwhile, after an evening wandering the streets, Eleanor spies an old piano in a hotel bar and starts playing. She attracts the attention of a young waiter, Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), who as it turns out is recovering from leukaemia. ‘I get off at ten,’ he tells her. The two meet by the sea (‘thanks for waiting for me’, ‘I wasn’t’) and Frank gives her some tips. ‘Llse the line when you tell people you’ve been playing for 200 years’ is what you want him to say; actually he gives her some money.
Clara finds Eleanor and takes her to meet her new knight in shining armour. Meanwhile, the beheading and the death of the old man are being investigated by a bald bloke and Sam Riley, formerly Pinky from the underwhelming remake of BRIGHTON ROCK.
The film does not have a sense of impending doom. Eleanor develops a relationship with Frank, who wants her to tell him his secret – and she does after joining his creative writing class, one where the participants appear not to have desks and lie on the floor in a way to turn themselves into conduits of truth. The film mostly consists of back story, how 200 years ago Clara was introduced to prostitution by a surly army captain (Jonny Lee Miller), how both she and the Captain became sick and how – not to give too much away – she became a sucreant, which involves a hidden island, a small mud hut on a mountain face, the appearance of being attacked by yourself, an awful lot of CGI bats and rivers of unconvincing CGI blood. (Note to Jordan: blood has a heavier density than water and flows differently; you can’t just tint water running down a mountain and get away with it!)
The visual effects are not the only unconvincing element. The bicycle accident that reintroduces Frank to Eleanor also beggars belief (the deep cut on the wrist that Frank receives isn’t consistent with the grazing one gets from this sort of injury). I could not believe that Eleanor would only reveal her origins story and not what happened after, as she outlasted Queen Victoria and most 20th Century monarchs. (I wanted more back-story and less of the point of view stuff with Messrs Riley and Miller.) Crucially I wasn’t convinced why the mother-daughter would reach a crisis at this particular point. It isn’t enough that Eleanor falls in love with someone fighting death and shares her own haunted look, albeit in Landry Jones’ case with a touch of the Rupert Grint. The ‘end of the pier’ has to represent something – a sense that eternal life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, that civilization over 200 years has not changed as much as a woman would like.
The plot engineers a convenient denouement. Clara swaps one raison d’être for another. We don’t get the THELMA AND LOUISE finale with powerful women unable to coexist with men going over the cliff, but something rather tame. I did like one detail, that when Eleanor writes of being a vampire, her new school thinks that social services should become involved. It is somewhat unpalatable that a concerned adult merits a comical death ‘I hate chattering women,’ says her killer, in the film’s only intentional attempt at humour; if Jordan and Buffini were interested in cheap jokes, why did not they include more of them?
The film does not really solve the problem it presents: how do you reconcile eternal life with human existence? Is eternal love – walking the Earth with a male life partner – the answer? I didn’t buy it. I also wanted to know more about the Nails of Justice – vampires as moral assassins by way of a secret brotherhood. The suggestion is that they just self-policed. However, you can’t throw an idea out like that and not develop it. To use the rhetoric of the genre, ‘tis a crime against storytelling!
Tom Hollander as Frank’s creative writing tutor and Kate Ashfield (SHAUN OF THE DEAD, THE LOW DOWN) as Frank’s mother, co-star.