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Byzantium Review: The Social Realist Vampire Movie

Back in 1994 Irish director Neil Jordan made interesting gothic movie Interview With A Vampire which has earned a cult following. Jordan has returned bloodsucking creatures with a social realist realism approach with Byzantium. Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) is woman who is permanently 16 and with her mother, Carla (Gemma Arterton) who are constantly hiding from a mysterious group. After Carla kills a man, the pair are forced on the run and end up in a town from their past. Despite Eleanor longing for solitude and Carla’s warnings the ‘teenager’ starts to bond with a local boy, Frank (Caleb Landry Jones). As Eleanor starts to get closer to Frank as she fights her thirst for blood, she reflects her mother’s origins, from being forced into prostitution in the 19th Century and how she became a vampire. But as the story is slowly revealed, we see that Carla will do anything to protect their secrets. Jordan uses a gritty, kitchen sink, realistic style, using grey filters and dark visuals, often contrasted by neon lights of the seaside town. There is no glamorous or gothic imaginary, Byzantium is set in tower blocks, a rundown seaside town and in an early 19th Century brothel. If it wasn’t for the supernatural elements of the movie Byzantium would have worked as a social realistic piece about the exploitation and suffering of women and would have continued a British cinematic tradition. But fear not if do not want to see social drama because there is gore and blood for vampire fans, with someone getting decapitated in the first five minutes and there is bloodletting and sucking. Byzantium does not have traditional vampires, there vampires do not have weaknesses to sunlight or religious symbols, but do not have the advantages either. The term vampire is not even used in the movie. Byzantium visual style, grounded setting and focus on the characters gave the movie a similar feel of the Swedish movie, Let the Right One In and its American remake, Let Me It. Both Eleanor and Carla are very different characters, with different experiences and outlooks. Carla changes with the times, from being a very formal woman in the 19th Century despite her ‘profession’ to being a harden sex worker in the modern world whilst Eleanor is a more quiet, reserved and conservative nature and wants to live a quiet live. Even their approach toward their thirst is different, Carla using it for her survival against people who threaten herself and her daughter as Eleanor feeds on people as a mercy. While Byzantium has mostly a social realistic approach, there's also a magical realism element, when people go to the island where people become vampires. It is on this island where the movie has its most surreal imagery and contains a much different look and tone to the rest of the movie. The whole creation of vampires process even adds to a religious element to the movie, about people being resurrected and the order of Vampires saying women are not allowed to create. This adds to the themes of female subjection and suffering. Another theme it adds to is about the characters having to face their past and personal demons by giving it a physical representation. Byzantium was blessed with having two top actresses and both of them gave superb performances. Ronan and Arterton have a natural relationship and they are complimented by a fine supporting cast. The supporting actors, particularly in the modern world as they played well rounded realistic characters. The one of the best was Daniel Mays as Noel, a would be John (or punter depending on your nationality) who is more realistic and complex as an awkward man looking for company then as some disgusting beast looking for sexual gravitation. The only real let down in the cast is Jones who was much more stiff in comparison to the rest of the cast. The biggest weakness of Byzantium is its narrative, as it moves back and forth from the past and the present day. Even in the present day of Byzantium is juggling numerous storylines, from the running away from the mysterious gang, the investigation of the women’s killings, Eleanor’s forming a relationship, Carla starting a brothel and the teachers at the school finding out about Eleanor and Carla. This leads to the film being an unfocused and meandering experience as Jordan has tries to blend all of these elements together. Byzantium has a fine grounded setting and style to it and serves as an interesting movie with great acting. Jordan mixes the social realism, the historical setting and the more supernatural elements. Byzantium is a thematic movie but it is more of a social drama with a supernatural element then as a work of horror.


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