Is there anything remotely interesting left to show audiences about vampires? If the recent media over-saturation hasn't already driven you to your coffin, don't forget the idea has existed in folkloric storytelling for centuries and will likely never die. What then can a film like Byzantium hope to offer audiences that hasn't already been seen or said, even if it is from Neil Jordan who brought Interview With the Vampire to the screen?
Based on a lesser known stage play by Moira Buffini that she also adapted for the screen, Byzantium follows Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) who find themselves fleeing to a British seaside town after their secret is yet again exposed, which turns out to be a place where the past lingers heavily for them as they do what they must to survive and establish some sort of temporary life here.
Buffini has claimed that she wanted to write a story where vampires aren't the typically glamourous, male focused, all-powerful beings. Instead they're a whore and a schoolgirl, representing what's perceived to be weaker members of society, with the vampyric element inspired by older folklore visions of the creatures that saw them as far from glamourous superbeings. Life is a struggle for these characters as it always has been, which is the point. This representation seems to work and means we get interesting elements such as the conceit about how they feed / kill their victims.
What's less satisfactory, and part of this may just be a personal thing, is the primary setting of the film. At the best of times British seaside resorts are drab, depressing places so in turn this gives the film an unappetising tone. A focus on the grey concreteness of promenades and walkways, dreary colour from fairgrounds, the elderly who are just sitting in Death's waiting room and the dated semi run-down guest house that serves as a base for our leads, all emphasises the struggling almost "kitchen sink" angle of the film, but this doesn't engage. More enticing is the stunning Western Irish scenery of an ominous island and it's cascading waterfalls, which mostly fall into the historical part of the story that turns out to be the most intriguing aspect. The transitions between present and past work however the film would've been improved by spending more time here, partly because it feels like there is plenty of background and mythology left uncovered. This portion of the film is where we see both Sam Riley and Johnny Lee Miller; the former is under-developed yet you feel there's a lot more to understand about his character, whilst Miller hams it up.
As for the leads, Arterton's character feels a little too one note, caring only about the pairs survival and moving forwards. Her broad accent suits the setting but again it feels like there's too much unrevelead as the focus too frequently falls on her ample cleavage. Ronan provides the depth, with her character in a more complex situation as the frustrated sixteen year old who's been alive for two centuries and has some sort of ethical code about feeding, yet is sick to death of secrets. She's the best thing in the film and fortunately is the focus. The other notable is Caleb Landry-Jones who, as love interest for Eleanor, is compelling but feels like he's wandered in from another film, almost as if he's playing an extension of his character Syd from Antiviral (review here) but with less interesting material and a weirdly distracting accent.
Byzantium sits slightly awkwardly between two worlds as it tries to balance the mythical with the normality of life, which is perhaps a route lesser seen when it comes to vampire stories. Cutting back on many of the tropes of the genre, such as no aversion to sunlight or fangs for example, is a real positive as it makes the film feel a little different, but unsurprisingly it's this side of the story that remains most interesting and the normality angle that drags it down. Perhaps if the present day setting was more enticing I'd have less of an issue and wouldn't have wanted to spend more time in their past. Byzantium isn't bad, it just teases that there's a potentially much better story hidden somewhere within this material.