In 1994, Irish director Neil Jordan took on the unenviable task of adapting Anne Rice’s macabre best-seller, “Interview with the Vampire” to the screen. Rice created a rich vampire mythology using elegant, erotic strokes that could spike with visceral shocks then relax into leisurely decadence. When Jordan cast the benignly popular Tom Cruise as lead vampire Lestat, it seemed an artistically suicidal move. Cruise might guarantee handsome box-office returns, but at what expense? Ultimately, Jordan’s game of Russian roulette casting paid off: “Interview…” grossed an estimated $224 million dollars worldwide, and Cruise received favorable notice for his performance.
With “Byzantium,” Jordan returns to feed from the same bloody vein. Based on “A Vampire Story,” Moira Buffini’s onstage play from 2007, “Byzantium” suggests that the familial ties binding mothers and daughters aren’t exclusive to mere mortals. The film’s heroes, voluptuous sex-siren Clara (the sizzling Gemma Arterton) and her 16-year old daughter Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan, underplaying brilliantly), are immortal, nomadic predators who have spent two centuries honing their skills at killing to survive. In a creative spin, these vampires puncture arteries not with fangs, but with retractable, switchblade-style fingernails.
“Byzantium” takes off like a bat out of hell, serving up lap-dances, street-chases, and bloody beheadings with enough crimson splatter to keep Dexter employed for months. Jordan’s film then settles into a more relaxed vibe, re-tracing the complex histories behind these resilient bloodsuckers while continuing to track their contemporary adventures.
Taking over a dilapidated hotel christened Byzantium and transforming it into a lucrative brothel, Clara perfects her talent for exploiting pleasures of the flesh for both blood and money. Disgusted with Mom’s seedy livelihood, the more sensitive, cerebral Eleanor (who feeds only off of victims already ill, infirm, and suffering) yearns to come clean about a haunting past kept under wraps her entire life.
“Byzantium” does a seamless job of gradually assembling the complex chain of events that created and shaped these two undead protagonists, guiding us into whorehouses, through orphanages, and onto islands holding the secrets to immortality. This is epic, engaging stuff, pushed into overdrive as an alliance of chauvinistic Old Guard vampires seek to destroy Clara, while Eleanor’s courtship with an ailing young suitor threatens to expose their secrets to the world.
Disappointingly, “Byzantium” collapses during its conventional finale, an anticlimactic, run-of-the-mill chase sequence. Underwhelming, yes – but not to the point of derailing the sublime terror and intrigue that’s gone before. Jordan succeeds in the ironic task of gifting his fantastical, undead immortals with a grounded, believable humanity. It’s a bloody good yarn.