Never Say Die: The Vampire Women of Neil Jordan's "Byzantium"
Although Neil Jordan did not write “Byzantium,” his latest crepuscular tale of the unwillingly undead, which opened Friday, it augments several of the Irish director’s previous films — not just “Interview With a Vampire.”
Its fairytale Gothic recalls “A Company of Wolves.” Its seedy seaside setting evokes the ending of “Mona Lisa.” A summit attended by “Byzantium”’s transgressive bloodsucker Clara (Gemma Arterton) and the leaders of the all-male vampire enclave suggests the conspiratorial atmosphere of “The Borgias” filtered through the baroque era. Like “The Company of Wolves,” meanwhile, the movie hovers around the subject of female sexual awakening. And like “Mona Lisa,” it deals with the horror of a young girl’s rape and necessarily purges the perpetrators.
Adapted by Moira Buffini from her National Theatre play “The Vampire Story,” “Byzantium” is the story of a nomadic mother and daughter, both more emotionally involving than “Interview”’s Louis and Lestat. Brassy Clara and genteel 16-year-old Eleanor (Saiorse Ronan) survive on the mum’s earnings as a prostitute — a trade she has practiced for 200 years, ever since a Napoleonic-era English captain, Ruthven (Jonny Lee Miller), seized her as an adolescent from a beach and installed her in a brothel. Eleanor obsessively inscribes her story, writing it down on sheets of paper that she casts into the wind or the sea.
For sustenance, Clara sucks the blood of her tricks while Eleanor feeds on elderly people who are ready to die. After Clara bloodies the nose of a groping lap-dancing client in one English town, they travel to another on the coast. Approached by the needy Noel (Daniel Mays) for sex, Clara comforts him instead and they take refuge in the shuttered hotel where he has lived alone since his mother died.
As Eleanor begins a tentative romance with Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), a fey youth who’s dying of leukemia, Clara kills a local pimp, commandeers his girls, and, to Eleanor’s disgust and despite Noel’s protest, turns the hotel, the Byzantium, into a whorehouse. The vampirized Ruthven then returns from the past to menace Clara and Eleanor, but so does his former fellow officer, Darvell (Sam Riley), who means to help them.
In the gangland thriller “Mona Lisa,” Bob Hoskins’s chauffeur seeks to protect Simone (Cathy Tyson), the black prostitute in his charge, and sets about the rescue of a teenage sex slave (Kate Hardie), whose equivalent in “Byzantium” is a permanently stoned and staggering young prostitute. In “The Crying Game,” Stephen Rea’s compassionate IRA man keeps his pledge to protect the pre-op transgender girlfriend (Jaye Davidson) of a murdered British soldier from other paramilitaries.
In “Byzantium,” Clara fiercely protects Eleanor, as a tiger would her cub, but her continuation in the sex trade is degrading, as Eleanor tells her. (The strip club where Clara is first seen performing equates with the prostitutes’ hellish pickup spot by Kings Cross Station in “Mona Lisa.”) That Jordan’s red-lit England has protectors as well as predators is important and reassuring, however: as well as Clara, two teachers at Frank’s school (played by Tom Hollander and Maria Doyle Kennedy) and Darvell are anxious to keep Eleanor out of danger.
Jordan’s approach to adolescent female sexuality is complex — a mix of fantastical and cautious. In “The Company of Wolves,” based on an Angela Carter short story inspired by Little Red Riding Hood, Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson, who was about 12 when she appeared in the film) has fever dreams in which she yearns explicitly for a huntsman-cum-werewolf.
Eleanor also wears a red hood when she visits Frank. One of the most discreet aspects of “Byzantium” is that the grave-faced Ronan (who is 19) is never objectified by the camera and never emotes in a desirous way — only when she gets a taste of the hemophiliac Frank’s spilled blood does she show a flicker of non-vampiric desire. Kirsten Dunst’s tween Claudia was more troublingly lustful when quenching her thirst in “Interview With a Vampire.”
In contrast, the fully grown Clara is the film’s voracious sexual agent. The movie has its cake and eats it: notwithstanding her sordid existence (two centuries of whoring), she wears her revealing bustiers and scarlet and emerald dresses with pride as she goes about ridding the world of leeching men — notably those vampire misogynists. If to some extent she’s a foulmouthed parody of such aggressive British tabloid divas as Cheryl Cole and Katie Price, she’s also a ferocious feminist avenger.
“Byzantium” offers genuine Gothic interludes. Two sequences are set on a remote island where seekers of immortality enter a stone hut on a craggy mountainside to receive their rites of passage, causing birds to cloud the sky and torrents of blood to pour forth (an image reminiscent of the blood river in Leos Carax’s “Pola X”). Its moral terrain, though, is the threatening urban present that has to be negotiated by teenage girls no less vigilantly than that of the early 19th century.