What’s this? A gorgeous, lyrical vampire film shot by a renowned, Oscar-nominated director, and I can watch it in the comfort of my own home while it plays a limited run in select theaters? I love you VOD! “Byzantium”, an exquisite thriller from Neil Jordan, opened on just 6 screens in late June before expanding to a maximum of 13 by its third week. As of early August, it has grossed roughly 85 thousand dollars. It deserves so much more. Jordan, of course, is not only a two-time Academy Award-nominated director(“The Crying Game”, “The End of the Affair”), but he also won the golden statuette for his screenplay for “The Crying Game” in 1993. In 1994, Neil was responsible for bringing Anne Rice’s “Interview with the Vampire” novel to the big screen starring Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. So, “Byzantium” is hardly uncharted territory for him. However, this time it’s the ladies’ turn. And I was so completely knocked out by the superb performances of Saoirse Ronan(Supporting Actress nominee for 2007’s “Atonement”)as Eleanor and Gemma Arterton(poised for mega-stardom with several high profiles projects on the way)as Clara that I believe both deserve Oscar nominations for their intricate, exciting roles(neither woman has a prayer, of course—I’m no fool). “Byzantium” succeeds in reclaiming vampire lore for adults in an age where it’s been demoted to an expression of teenage angst at the local cineplexes. It’s also one of 2013’s best films.
Clara and Eleanor Webb(Ms. Arterton and Ms. Ronan, respectively)are introduced to us as sisters, as they get ready to move on to a new town soon after the film opens. They are vampires you see. Eleanor, the younger one, is moody and introspective as she perpetually writes her story in long hand, only to consistently toss the crumpled up pages into the wind. Clara is the fiery leader and go-getter, who lays down the ground rules while keeping them on the move when their selective blood-letting gets them too close to discovery. The “young” women are actually over two centuries old, and we also flash back to the Napoleonic Wars and observe how each was damned into eternal life. Luck befalls them when landing in an Irish coastal resort, after Clara takes a pathetic human soul(a perfect Daniel Mays)under her wing, and turns his recently inherited Byzantium Hotel into a brothel. This acts as a cover for the vampiric “sisters”, but trouble is brewing as the women are both being tracked by two mysterious men—who have some “undead” secrets of their own. Further complication comes about as the pensive Eleanor begins a romantic relationship with sickly teenager Frank(a wonderful Caleb Landry Jones). And Eleanor endangers her(and Clara’s)continued existence when she divulges to Frank a great deal more than she should.
“Byzantium” is bloody, and sensuous, and Gemma Arterton, as Clara, practically ignites the screen. And the now 19-year old Ms. Ronan continues a string of highly impressive odd-year outings(2007’s “Atonement”, 2009’s “The Lovely Bones”, 2011’s “Hanna”)with the much more difficult role of Eleanor. My desire to visit and re-visit some of her earlier work just spiked exponentially. And damn, that Arterton is sexy as hell! She perfectly compliments Ms. Ronan’s ice with her red-hot fire. The vampire legend has been so diluted over the past decade by countless puerile books and movies, that the eclectic Mr. Jordan had to realize he was setting himself up for a fall. I’m not certain that the mature audience that a work like this requires is even out there any longer. When I have 40-year old suburban moms proudly confessing to me that they are reading the Stephenie Meyer “Twilight” series, I fear that the future is indeed bleak. We’re a long way from Bram Stoker here, folks. But Jordan should be commended for attempting to yank us back down to terra firma. There have been some slivers of sun-rays on this genre this century, though. 2010’s “Daybreakers” was fun and underrated. 2008’s superb Swedish-language “Let the Right One In” garnered multiple international awards and much acclaim. Even its 2010 American remake(“Let Me In”)was pretty darn good. And Guillermo del Toro’s 2002 “Blade II” is not only a freaking corker—it’s also his biggest ever domestic hit. But the box office returns pale in comparison to the team of Stewart, Pattinson and Meyer. But despite its paltry return on investment, “Byzantium” just may be the best of them all. I will not soon forget the waterfalls of blood that announce the creation of new members of the walking dead. And Jordan has obviously not lost even a sliver of his helming prowess. I present “Byzantium”, a monster movie for grown-ups, as the most current evidence. Grade: A