Forget Twilight and True Blood and even Neil Jordan’s own blockbuster Interview with a Vampire. Byzantium, the latest thriller from the Irish master, is Jordan’s best work in years and by far the most interesting film of 2013.
“The fact that there are vampires in Byzantium is the least attractive thing about it,” Jordan tells the Irish Voice.
“There were quite a few elements in it that were common to other films I’ve made. It was set in a run-down seaside resort, it jumped between time periods, it involved people keeping secrets. I just found it attractive.”
There have been so many vampire films of late, Jordan admits. “There’s the Twilight series and there’s just been a vampire overload, hasn’t there? I thought there was an opportunity to do something different,” he said.
“The fact that they are women, the fact that they had robbed the secret of eternal life from this male patriarchy, interested me.”
Byzantium, which opened last Friday, introduces us to mother and daughter vampire pair Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) and Clara Webb (Gemma Arterton). For 200 years Eleanor and Clara have been on the run from the sinister brotherhood of vampires who want to kill them for having dared to move away and live independently on their own terms.
Their story beings during the Napoleonic Wars, when Clara is forced to abandon her infant daughter Eleanor and take up a life of prostitution. A vulnerable young woman in a man’s world, Clara is easy prey for the violent men who surround her.
But her circumstances finally change when she discovers the secret of immortality, quickly saving herself and her daughter from a life of drudgery and servitude. The price for defying the odds is exile.
“The contrast between the two women is so striking,” says Jordan. “One is this voracious sexual avenger, and the other is a preternatural presence that observes everything. In a way they’re the female version of Louis and Lestat from Interview with a Vampire.”
Two hundred years after they steal the secret of eternal life Clara and Eleanor are still on the run, which leads them to a dowdy English seaside town that looks like a safe hiding place. There the pair of fugitives set up a new life, believing themselves safe from the evil forces that seek their destruction.
But there’s something Clara hasn’t thought about that Eleanor has. What’s the point of all this running and hiding? What use is immortality if you can’t actually spend a couple of hundred years enjoying it? What’s the point of a secret if it kills you to keep it?
If Byzantium is Jordan’s Interview with a Vampire seen from a woman’s perspective, the intervening years have seen his recurring themes deepen, making the latest outing a much finer film.
“The main thing I did to the script was introduce an Irish element,” Jordan says. “The story is set in an English seaside town. But when they set out to become vampires I situate it in Ireland.
“Bram Stocker the author of Dracula grew up next door to me. So we came up with this stone island with a red waterfall. It all began to make a difference kind of sense. That’s when I thought we may have something special here.”
Ronan reminds us that it’s hard enough to be 17, but to be 17 for 200 years? That sounds like a form of torture. So when she’s pursued by the besotted young Frank (Caleb Landry Jones) she finally finds someone she can unburden herself to.
“When you grow up in Ireland you can feel like the entire culture is hiding a secret that is never explained to you. What are they hiding? Maybe it’s a childhood thing,” Jordan says.
“The reason I’ve done so many movies set in worlds that are more real or more bloody or more alluring than reality itself is because of that Irish background. It’s that kind of irrational folklore that the whole place was steeped in when I was growing up, you know?”
Here’s the thing about this gorgeous, poetic and deeply philosophical film. It’s becoming harder and harder for critics and audiences alike to recognize or unravel complex myths that don’t involve X-men or Kryptonite. That’s just a fact of the world we live in now.
But Jordan has always operated at a much more subtle level, and his frames of reference include Greek myth, the Bible, renaissance neo-Platonism, Irish poetry, Hammer Horror films, cinema-verite -- it’s a dizzying array.
In a word, he’s what they call sophisticated. That makes for great films, but it also makes for an increasing number of mystified critics who have grown used to being pandered to these days.
For that reason Byzantium has divided Americas critics as few other films have done in 2013. You’ll either love it (I’m guessing you will) or hate it (if you think Twilight was the last word on blood suckers, stay home).