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Byzantium — film review

Amazon were kind (read devious) enough to send me a free month’s access to Amazon Prime video streaming. I doubt I’ll be willing to pay for it, but whilst I have it, I thought I might as well watch some of the films and TV shows that I haven’t managed to catch so far. This time, Byzantium (2012), adapted from Moira Buffini‘s play A Vampire Story.

I had it in my head that this film starred Rachel Weisz (I was wrong, mistaking it for Agora (2009)). Instead, this stars Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan as a mother-and-daughter pair of vampires (or ‘soucriant‘, as the film sometimes terms it).

The film has some nice Gothic overtones, and the seaside resort and some of the dialogue echo previous vampire ‘lore’ (Arterton at one point goes under the name ‘Carmilla‘, borrowed from Le Fanu’s vampire novella), although there are deviations from the usual tropes, such as the ability to walk in sunlight.

The focus of the film is the mother-and-daughter relationship. Arterton’s Clara is tough and brittle, earning money from prostitution (and pimping), and keeping Ronan’s Ella in the dark about the fact that they are being pursued by a ‘brotherhood’ of vampires for her breaking of their rules and ‘creating’ Ella (one of the rules being that women cannot create. Bizarre, given that another fact about the ‘brotherhood’ is that there are no women in it, so why they’d bother having that rule is beyond me).

As the plot suggests, at its core, the film has the makings of a feminist tale. Arterton’s Clara, having been kidnapped, raped and left in a brothel by Johnny Lee Miller’s malignant army captain, Ruthven, eventually steals her chance of eternal life from him: a map to an ancient shrine in the West Indies where one can find eternal life. The map has been offered to Ruthven by a former fellow soldier — Darvell, played by Sam Riley — who Ruthven had accompanied to the shrine and, finding his comrade apparently dead after having entered it, subsequently robbed.

Bewilderingly, after having gained eternal life and thereby entered a noble ‘brotherhood’ of vampires, Darvell seeks to invite Ruthven to join them, despite deploring Miller’s rapture of numerous young girls and his general arsehole-ish-ness. As I watched the scene, it looked as though Darvell was inciting Clara to kill Ruthven and take the opportunity for herself, but this doesn’t seem to be the case later on. When he finds her on the island after she has completed the transformation, he is troubled, because of course, there has never been a woman in the ‘brotherhood’, and when the other brothers are keen to ‘destroy’ her after he takes them to him, he fails to speak up for her, a fact that she highlights pointedly. In the face of such discrimination, the approach she chooses is best summed up as ‘sisters doing it for themselves’.

Still, when it comes down to it, mother-and-daughter are saved by Darvell’s attraction to Clara, and split up so that each can go their own way with their new-found beaus (Ella taking Frank — her dying-of-leukemia boyfriend — to the shrine for his own transformation). Plus Arterton spends most of her (twenty-first century) time in see-through clothes, with the occasional pair of leather trousers thrown in for good measure. In terms of sexual politics, the film is at best confused, and it doesn’t even begin to explore the potentially interesting post-colonial aspects of the plot (hinted at mainly through the word ‘soucriant’, and Buffini really could have done better, given that the resonances of that word in Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, the postcolonial prequel to Jane Eyre, which Buffini has also adapted for the big screen).

Other elements of the plot, such as the concern of Ella’s teachers that she might be being abused or in some way neglected, and Frank’s leukaemia being implicitly paired with the experience of being fed on by a vampire, add interest, although both remind me of young adult vampire stories that I used to read! This is probably not so surprising given that Buffini’s original play was for a young adult audience, but it did make me chuckle a little at certain points.

What makes the film enjoyable to watch is Ronan. Her buttoned-up, raised-in-a-religious-orphanage, only-kill-the-suicidal (generally the old) character suits her acting style well. She has a stillness that nevertheless mingles with a yearning (for blood and for sex/love, which are interwined as ever in vampire films), and there is just a hint that we might question her morality as much as she questions Clara’s, although the film never really gets into that question. Sadly, Ronan’s is the only really great acting in this film. Arterton generally plays her role well, although I do find her a little unconvincing at times. She’s not especially threatening or malevolant, so she seems to be (forgive me) vamping it up whenever her character starts killing. Miller, too, I find hammy, and as for the dying Frank (played by Caleb Landry Jones), it’s hard to know where to start. What accent is he meant to be doing? Need he be quite so oddly Byronic, with his swinging hair and moody ‘why won’t you love me’ behaviour?

Overall, then, this is an amusing film. There are no truly bum notes to throw you out of it, and there is a lot of interest to be gained by thinking about how one could improve it!

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