Thursday, August 5, 2021

Vampire Weekend

Films: Byzantium
Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on Fire!

How exactly do I explain a film like Byzantium? On the surface, this is a vampire movie, but it’s a vampire movie unlike any I’ve seen before. It’s one that very much creates its own mythology, its own method of vampire creation, and a great deal more. It’s also terribly melodramatic in places, but in a way that is surprisingly appealing. It’s gritty at times, and seedy, with several moments of surprising violence, and yet there is a great deal of poetry here. And for whatever reason, no one seems to know this movie.

We are first introduced to the two women we will spend most of the movie with. Clara (Gemma Arterton) works as a stripper while Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) appears to be just a bit too young to be employed. What we learn right away is that these are women who are something other than human. Eleanor, we learn, writes the story of her life frequently and tosses the pages to the wind. Some of them have been collected by an old man who lives in the same building; he claims he knows what she is and asks her to kill him. She does, and we learn that she is, more or less, a vampire.

Meanwhile, Clara is pursued by a mysterious man (Thure Lindhardt) who she eventually decapitates. She drinks his blood as well (yep, she’s a vampire, too), and when Eleanor comes home, the two pack up their belongings and light the place on fire. They turn up in a small seaside town and Clara, needing money for the two of them to survive, starts turning tricks. This is how she meets Noel (Daniel Mays), who owns a hotel that has started to go to seed. Clara latches onto him and decides to turn the building into a brothel.

Meanwhile, Eleanor becomes enamored of Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), a young man who we learn is recovering from leukemia. Wanting to be near him, she enrolls at the local college with him, and while she is interested in him, she remains aloof and fearful, thinking that if she reveals her secret life to him, things will turn out poorly.

Over the course of the film, we learn their backstory. Clara was essentially abducted by a soldier (Jonny Lee Miller) and turned into a prostitute while another soldier (Sam Riley) looked on helplessly. We also learn that in this world, vampirism is not something that can simply be given from one vampire to the next; there is an island where the creation of new vampires takes place. This is controlled by a group of male vampires called The Brethren, and the creation of Clara, who finds the place herself, is something of a scandal. It’s a bigger problem when she turns Eleanor into a vampire—doing so because Eleanor is her daughter.

There’s a lot more here. Honestly, the back story could have easily been a movie in its own right. It’s a fascinating tale of love and betrayal and more betrayal and eventually of a sort of gleeful, open-armed embracing of the idea of a vampiric lifestyle. That it comes with a modern-day take of romance and of pursuit—The Brethren are still hunting the pair—only makes it more interesting.

There’s a great deal to like with Byzantium. This is a movie that explores a lot of directions when it comes to the potential of this sort of unending life. What do you do with a couple of centuries of time? Aside from staying ahead of The Brethren who are trying to kill them, our two vampires have very different outlooks on life. Eleanor sees herself as essentially an angel of mercy. Her chosen victims are people at the end of their lives who choose to allow her to kill them. Clara, on the other hand, takes special delight in killing men who are in positions of power, something no doubt learned from her early life in a brothel.

While there are moments of violence, Byzantium is generally slow and measured. This isn’t about vampires being vampires, but about the people they were and the people they imagine themselves to be. Eleanor’s habit of writing out her story and throwing the pages to the wind is rather beautiful as well. It’s silly and melodramatic, but if you can’t develop some melodramatic tendencies over the course of two centuries, why bother at all?

What makes Byzantium most interesting, though, is that the vampire plot seems secondary to everything else. It’s likely that this was used as the main selling point (I don’t remember seeing any ads for this), but about 80% or more of this works perfectly if Clara and Eleanor are just on the run from the police or some other authority.

I feel jaded sometimes, but it’s genuinely beautiful. It reminds me in odd ways or a film like Gas Food Lodging. I like how much this doesn’t feel like a horror movie while still conforming to many of the rules of horror movies. An underrated little gem that should have more people championing it.

Why to watch Byzantium: What a lovely, lovely melodrama.
Why not to watch: It really doesn’t feel like a vampire movie.


  1. This is a film that that I've been wanting to see as I heard good things about it as I'm a sucker for these kind of films as I think it was on Showtime/the Movie Channel as I hope it's still around for October as it would be a perfect film to watch for Halloween season.

    1. It's worth seeing. It's very slow and meditative, but it's very worthwhile.

  2. I liked this too. Its playing around with vampire lore is clever, and its strength comes from the interesting mother/daughter dynamic at its heart; Gemma Aterton and Saoirse Ronan are great in most things, and are definitely so here.

    I too would have loved more backstory, particularly about the controversy about women becoming vampires. I don't think it went into why that was so, and I can imagine its a rich storytelling opportunity. The film created an intriguing and rich universe, I wish we'd got to spend more time in it.

    1. I agree about the concept of The Brotherhood. It feels like this could have been the start of a series, like a couple more movies to really explore the mythos and this particular brand of vampire would be interesting. We got the teaser here, and perhaps not enough interest (or box office) to warrant a sequel.