A darker shore: Byzantium


How it’s New York: New York may not be the spiritual home of all vampires (that seems to be Bon Temps, Louisiana, these days), but there sure are a lot of people dressed in black here.
How it’s Irish: Saoirse Ronan stars as a young-looking but actually very old vampire in this film by Neil Jordan, who made “Interview with the Vampire” in 1996.

An earlier version of this review was first published in Irish Examiner USA, April 30, 2013. We saw it as part of the Tribeca Film Festival, and loved it then. It’s available On Demand now, and it’s a great Halloween thriller.


Another vampire movie, you say? After Twilight, True Blood, and too many young adult novels to count, is this really necessary?

But this one is by director Neil Jordan, who in 1996 directed Interview with the Vampire, and it is based on Moira Buffini’s play Vampire Story. Buffini also wrote the screenplay.

Yes, there’s a teenage protagonist in it… but this is not a “vampire meets girl” story. In some ways it’s a “vampire meets boy” story, which sounds like it’s just a gender twist..

But it’s more than that – it’s kind of a cross between a thriller (there’s plenty of blood) and Jane Austen, set in an English seaside town.

Hours after watching the film, it stayed in my mind. It’s a fable and a waking nightmare, and it’s complex and powerful.

It’s about two young women, Eleanor, played by Saoirse Ronan (she’s everywhere these days, and does a marvelous turn in Geoffrey Fletcher’s Violet and Daisy too) and Clara, played by the beautiful Gemma Arterton.

As the story begins, we don’t quite understand what’s going on: Eleanor is writing out her story longhand and throwing the pages over the balcony of a project building. An old man finds them and reads them. While visiting him, and reading the story of how a mother was supposed to smother her baby but was “confounded by love,” Eleanor seems to get his consent. A sharp thumbnail claw comes out. She pierces his neck, and drinks.

Meanwhile, Clara is grinding a customer at a strip club. She’s attacked and then fired, which leads to a scene of her speaking meekly to someone who calls her “base” – before she surprises him by garroyting off his head.

We’ll soon learn that Clara’s a vampire too, and deduce that despite not looking much older than Eleanor, she’s her mother.It’s clear Eleanor is her teenage daughter, really, when she stomps that she hates her, she doesn’t want to move, in one of the film’s blink-if-you-miss-it moments of humor. They set the project on fire, and hitchhike down the coast.

These vampires can see themselves in mirrors, don’t turn into bats, don’t flee from daylight, although they do need to be invited in to enter a building. Their need to feed is not that pressing, and it seemed to me they ate other things as well.

This is where the story truly begins, as Clara meets a sad young man whose mother has died, and takes over his boarding house named Byzantium and makes it into a whorehouse. Eleanor, while playing piano in a restaurant (not for pay, just because – she’s had lots of practice in 200 years), meets up with a local boy.

For a while things are stable, and then Eleanor’s story, written for the young man, Frank (played by Caleb Landry Jones, whose wavering accent sadly makes him sound like he has a speech impediment much of the time) to whom she becomes attached after she trips him and he nearly bleeds to death (he has a medical condition), alarms the teachers, and draws the attention of the sinister Brotherhood.

The Jane Austen elements are in the story Eleanor tells about how her mother became a vampire. Two hundred years ago, her mother was gang-pressed into becoming a harlot by the evil Capt. Ruthven (Johnny Lee Miller, as sleezy and evil as they come), although the gentler Darwell (handsome and inscrutable Sam Riley) tried to warn her away. He became a vampire to save his life from a deadly illness, and when he returns to the bordello to offer his startled friend, who took him for dead and purloined his estate, an opportunity to become one too, Clara seized her chance and took the map herself.

Vampires are created by visiting a particular shrine, you see, where they must wrestle with the image of themselves, and die to live.

When it happens, in one of the movie’s more beautiful images, the waterfalls on the island run red with blood.

These flashbacks drive the story along, rather than interrupting it; the present and the past are really part of the same story. Aren’t they always?

Because women are not allowed to create, the Brotherhood has been stalking Clara for hundreds of years. We also learn that Clara turned Eleanor after a brutal attack by the same man who had forced her into prostitution.

The film has a beautiful subdued look to it too, with the waves rolling in. The score also adds tremendous power to the strange story, with multiple versions of “The Coventry Carol,” as well as classical pieces.

Apparently Saoirse learned to play the piano in a crash course for the movie.

She expresses so much with her eyes alone; the pain and isolation and buried hopes all come through. Arterton radiates bountiful life as Clara, full of sex appeal and even joy.

She’s a kind of Robin Hood of vampires, preying on the strong and protecting the week, and for all her temper and occasional ruthlessness, you can see she’s a wonderful mum.

Byzantium is an exploration of the bond between mother and daughter, what women do to survive in a male-dominated world, and the redemptive power of love.

With Vampires.


Gwen Orel
About the Author

The only New York journalist who writes for both the Forward and Irish Music Magazine.