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Byzantium (AF)


Stars: Gemma Arterton, Saoirse Ronan, Sam Riley, Jonny Lee Miller, Daniel Mays, Caleb Landry Jones, Kate Ashfield, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Uri Gavriel, Thure Lindhard and, unbilled, Tom Hollander

Director: Neil Jordan

“I write of what I cannot speak”, says 200-year-old ‘teenager‘ Saoirse Ronan who, being a vampire, remains aged 16 and has eternal life. Ronan’s autobiographical writings, which she makes the mistake of sharing in an essay, eventually backfire on her and her young/old ‘sister’ Gemma Arterton (who is actually her mother), in Neil Jordan’s fascinating return to horror movies some 19 years after his Interview with a Vampire.

While Ronan sups on the blood of those who are ill and ready for death, Arterton is more aggressive in satisfying her liquid cravings. When the couple flee the scene of their last depredations and end up in a small coastal town, Arterton takes up lap dancing to attract her meals and, picking on and picking up miserable Daniel Mays, moves herself and Ronan into his Byzantium boarding house which she then runs as a brothel.

Moira Buffini has skillfully revamped her play “A Vampire’s Story” as a screen shocker which, while perhaps having affinities with the sanitized-for-teenagers ‘Twilight’ films, makes a strong genre impression and affords good opportunities for its leads as well as for the special effects wizards who have created some strikingly effective shock pieces, notably a cave seething with hysterical flapping bats and a bleak island whose mountains suddenly become home to gushing waterfalls of blood.

Jordan takes his time to establish his key characters (with Jonny Lee Miller making a strong impression as the naval officer who, back in time, transforms waif Arterton into a whore) and Ronan and Arterton reward him with vivid characterizations. Arterton’s turn as a erotically teasing lap-dancer makes her one of the sexiest vampires of the genre, all the more effective since when she turns to bloodily beheading a victim with a garrote she chillingly reveals the killer inside. Ronan, too, is first rate, brooding and surprisingly vulnerable when she befriends young leukemia sufferer Caleb Landry Jones in a bond that ultimately leads to her being outed as a vampire when her autobiographical writings – passed off as an essay in writing – are read by teachers. (In this respect, teacher Tom Hollander gives a painfully pallid performance and wisely remains unbilled).

And, to coin a phrase, fings aren’t what they used to be.

Where Hammer Films maestro Terence Fisher had his vampires biting into their victims’ necks to release the expected fountains of blood, Jordan’s vampires grow long fingernails which they use to slice open their jugulars. And, incidentally, another genre cliché bites the dust: Ronan and Arterton are able to see their own reflections in mirrors.

Jordan makes excellent use of Sean Bobbitt’s atmospheric cinematography to heighten the impact of a horror film which has rather more to offer than the current full-frontal blood-and-guts approach currently favoured by most genre moviemakers.

Alan Frank

Ireland/UK 2012. UK Distributor: StudioCanal. Colour.
119 minutes. Widescreen. UK certificate: 15.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 2, Violence/Horror 2, Drugs 0, Swearing 2.

Review date: 01 Jun 2013