Sunday, August 4, 2013

Review: "Byzantium"

Director: Neil Jordan
Runtime: 118 minutes

We know vampires when we see them. No reflections, pale skin, fangs, an aversion to sunlight and crucifixes, and a taste for blood. Yet aside from the pale skin (which can be explained by the British heritage) and bloodlust, the vampires in Neil Jordan's Byzantium (adapted from Moira Buffini's play) couldn't be more different. They don't even have fangs, for one thing. Instead, they're outfitted with a nifty retractable thumbnail that can be used for puncturing. 

The surface details, however, are but the start of what makes Byzantium such a satisfying entry in the vampire film canon. Though its story spans at least two centuries, Jordan and keeps the film, which only has its momentary sluggish points, firmly locked on its characters. Though widely overlooked upon its limited release earlier this year, Byzantium deserves to be put in the company of Park Chan-Wook's Thirst and Tomas Alfredson's Let the Right One In as one of the best vampire films of the 21st century. 

The most compelling aspect of Byzantium's blood suckers is how they are - for the most part - ordinary. They have no extraordinary senses or super strength, making them much more vulnerable and compelling figures. This is complemented nicely by the mother/daughter and sister/sister dynamic between vivacious Clara (Gemma Arterton) and introspective Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan). Rather than stalk the big city, the duo are residents of an unnamed coastal English town, where Clara provides for them by working as a prostitute. Though their lives are relatively stable, the two soon find evidence that they're being pursued by a centuries-old order of their own kind. 

Complicating matters is Clara's involvement with kind-hearted local Noel (Daniel Mays), and Eleanor's burgeoning romance with her classmate Frank (Caleb Landry Jones). Through it all, the narrative hops into the past, exploring how the two ladies rose from impoverished origins before their transformations. At times the jumps to the past can feel clumsy, but for the most part Jordan is able to weave a quietly engaging tale, heightened by a chilly atmosphere and effective performances. 

Even the introduction of the teenage romance is a far cry from the cringe-worthy pining of the Twilight franchise. Though Eleanor and Frank's early encounters are among the film's low points, the gradual development packs a wallop once it comes to a close. Similarly, Ronan's performance also benefits the most from the progression of the plot. At first, she seems headed for the same lifeless territory of Kristen Stewart's Bella Swan. Yet as her character's stakes raise, and her morality comes into focus, she emerges as a conflicted and tragic figure, rather than a one-note moper. In the film's best scene, Ronan verbally dominates a teacher (Maria Doyle Kennedy), by barely exerting any aggression. It's a marvelous melding of pain and regret, all wrapped up in an icy, barely-perceptible threat. 

While the second half allows Ronan to take command of the screen, the first half is Arterton's show. The actresses' free-spirited, saucy performance keeps the tone from slipping into morose navel-gazing. With her sexy clothing, and surrounded by the bright neons of the local amusement park, Clara is content to live her life on the run to the fullest. Despite being the older character and the provider, she knows how to balance both her wild side and her maternal instincts. Arterton blends these two sides into a cohesive character capable of lust, violence, and compassion.

The roster of supporting cast members are solid as well, though their roles tend toward the one-note variety. Jonny Lee Miller stands out as a nasty figure from Clara and Eleanor's past, even as his domineering sneers are somewhat cartoonish. Sam Riley, meanwhile, is pleasant enough but ultimately disposable as one of the vampires trying to track Clara down. His role is more of a plot-point than a fleshed-out character, though the script never focuses on him enough for this to become a distraction. Landry Jones, however, manages a few nice moments with Ronan, even as they're used more to develop Eleanor than create a deeply-felt romantic connection.

Aside from Arterton and Ronan, the real stars of Byzantium are Jordan, cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, and composer Javier Navarrete (Pan's Labyrinth). Even some of Jordan's best work can, at first glance, feel choppy. With Byzantium, he's crafted one of his most fluidly paced endeavors. Only a portion between acts one and two starts to drag, and even then the director and his team keep the film afloat through the atmosphere. The framing, while never ostentatious, creates many small moments that add up, and Bobbitt's use of color is gorgeous in its range and vibrancy.  

Yet nothing sticks the landing quite like Navarrete's scoring. Ranging from classical arrangements to subtle electric guitars, the Spanish composer turns in some of his best work to date. Befitting of the story and Jordan's command of the imagery, the music is sinister, seductive, and even operatic when called for. Navarrete never overpowers the visuals or the performances. Instead, he accents them and helps them reach full potential, lending already striking scenes a perfect finish and after taste. 

Even though it runs nearly two hours, Byzantium's slow burn of a narrative is worth the investment. Despite the dip in the middle, Jordan has crafted a sumptuous modern vampire tale. For all of the blood that flows (there's even a scene of Clara bathing in a waterfall of the stuff), Jordan and Buffini have grounded the story in a character study of love, loss, and family. There are certainly bumps along the way, but so much of Byzantium flows so elegantly that the occasional dip or bit of convoluted history hardly matters. It's a character piece first, and a vampire movie second, which is all the more reason why it's such a bloody good time (couldn't resist).

Grade: B/B+

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