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).
Byzantium is about prostitutes who refuse to be victimized, and virgins who refuse to become saints. The women in it have to grapple with the men who seek to control them if they want to write their own destinies and find their own lives.
As Eleanor, the script gives Ronan, 19, the scope to craft the most heartfelt performance of her career to date. Playing a lonely young teenager in a seaside town with a secret that could get her
killed, she’s completely convincing in the role.
“Saoirse has the ability that very few actors have to bring the whole reality of her world to her expression. You can see it on her face,” says Jordan.
“She’s kind of extraordinary. I hope she chooses the right roles because she’ll have a great career, I think.”
Already a prodigious talent, Ronan learned piano for the role and is pictured early on playing it in an old folks home (she survives on the blood of terminal elderly patients who welcome the death she offers as a mercy and a relief).
She’s 200 years older than the oldest resident, and you can see it in her eyes and hear it in the notes she plays. It’s an astonishing scene in a film filled with remarkable images.
“That scene was beautiful. Saoirse learned that piece herself. She spent about two months rehearsing with a piano teacher. She’s an extraordinary actress Saoirse, she was perfect for this part,” says Jordan.
Cards on the table here -- I don’t usually enjoy or seek out vampire films, which is why Byzantium was such a welcome surprise to me. Jordan has crafted a film that’s as much about the fate of love as it is about the walking dead. Men who exhibit empathy and kindness in their daily lives, men who love and are loved in return, are rewarded in Byzantium.
But men who seek the power to control the world and all the people in it to enrich themselves and flout everyone else are punished, usually gruesomely.
Jordan’s female vampires correct the arrogant presumption of their male counterparts in a public service you may find yourself appreciating.
It’s Frank, the weird young man with the leukemia that will soon end his life, who has the patience and the interest to do what so few others have ever been willing to do. Frank loves Eleanor and he listens to her; in saving her he ends up saving himself.
Jordan may well be thinking of another Irish master, W.B. Yeats, whose poem Sailing to Byzantium tackles the problem of old age, the problem of the mind and the spirit becoming “fastened to a dying animal.”
Jordan’s eternally young vampires know all about this predicament. But they, like the director and the Irish poet, solve it by staying true to the heart and the spirit that guides them.
You can be any age, as long as you love well. As long as you connect to the deepest part of yourself, you’ll endure. Even after you’re gone.