Byzantium is written by Moira Buffini based on her play A Vampire Story (2008). Buffini is a rising name on the British arts scene in recent years, she having written more than ten plays since the 1990s. She emerged onto film with the screenplays for Tamara Drewe (2010), which served to launch this films Gemma Arterton as a major leading actress, and the remake of Jane Eyre (2011). Although it is less apparent or ambiguous in the film, the play was designed with a double structure where you could not be certain if the vampires were real or whether it was merely a story being made up by the troubled Eleanor in the present-day.
Neil Jordan had previously ventured into vampires before with his critically divided adaptation of Interview with the Vampire. Byzantium has many similarities to Interview with the Vampire, as much as it is also a very different film. Like Interview, it concerns vampires who operate in a perverse mimicry of a family Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise as parents to the seeming child Kirsten Dunst in Interview; Gemma Arterton as mother of but posing as sister to the seemingly teenage Saoirse Ronan here. In both films, Saoirse and Kirsten, though they look like minors, are in reality vampires more than a century old. Both films deal with the loneliness of immortality but both sets of vampires seem to exist at opposite ends of the socio-economic spectrum Interviews vampires are effortlessly wealthy such that we never ask how they obtain their wealth, whereas Byzantiums vampires maintain a subsistence lifestyle on the fringes of society, resorting to prostitution and sugar daddies as a means of getting by. Interview dealt with hyper-sexualised male vampires and was one of the chief works that redeemed the image of the vampire from monster to darkly sexy pretty boy. By contrast, Byzantium deals with female sexuality, although Jordan does little to craft either Gemma Arterton or Saoirse Ronan as figures of desirability more so, we see Gemma Arterton using her sexuality as a tool to draw victims to her. Both Sam Riley and Jonny Lee Miller are cast as bad boys (and could easily sit alongside Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise and Antonio Banderas in Interview) but their presence here is peripheral, while the role played by human Daniel Mays is little more than an ineffectual mark to be used. You can see Byzantium as almost the opposite of the absurd teen romance of Twilight (2008) and sequels where they were posturing and inflated to larger than life emotions, Byzantium is filled with day-to-day realities and has the vampire guarded and cautious about opening up to mere mortals.
I was absorbed in Byzantium from the opening scenes with Saoirse Ronan writing her story and then tearing it up and throwing the pieces away, her then encountering an old man (Barry Cassin) who has pieced all the torn bits of story back together and invites her home and sits down to show her photos and tell her the story of the woman he loved who was married to his brother before, at his invitation, Saoirse bares her fingernail and jabs it into him to drink his blood. These scenes are alternated with the images of Gemma Arterton at work as a stripper who is then found and pursued by Thure Lindhardt for reasons unclear at that point. She invites him back to her apartment, where quite incongruously to the previous scenes she deferentially refers to him as sir, before abruptly garrotting him and setting the apartment on fire. These scenes are all the more striking for Jordans abrupt contrast between soft intimacy and the bump and grind of a strip club and the unexpected introduction of horror elements.
I suspect that in another directors hands, Byzantium would have emerged as a more average film. It is however Neil Jordans grasp as a mature filmmaker that makes every frame of the film fascinating. His assurance, visuals and ease with the drama gives Byzantium an exquisite elegance. Every scene seems to come with small detail and visual incident that absorbs you not to mention the constant structuring of the script in a way that creates a gradually unveiling mystery about what is happening. There is often hauntingly good writing during Saoirse Ronans narration of her flashback scenes to the past. Both actresses are at the height of their promise and give excellent performances.
Neil Jordan at least stays clear of ironically referencing the vampires as many modern films tend to. He only allows the smallest of touches in naming Jonny Lee Millers rake Ruthven after the vampire in John Polidoris seminal vampire story The Vampyre (1819), as well as an ironic screening of Hammers Dracula Prince of Darkness (1966) on tv.
Neil Jordans other genre films are:- The Company of Wolves (1984), an adaptation of one of Angela Carters stories that deconstructs Little Red Riding Hood with werewolves; High Spirits (1998), a failed haunted castle slapstick comedy; the Anne Rice adaptation Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles (1994); The Butcher Boy (1997), a surreal horror film about a disturbed Irish childhood; the clairvoyance thriller In Dreams (1999); the female vigilante film The Brave One (2007); and Ondine (2009) about a possible sea nymph.
(Nominee for Best Cinematography at this sites Best of 2012 Awards).