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Indie Snapshot: Byzantium

by admin June 28, 2013 1:39 pm
Indie Snapshot: Byzantium

A mother/daughter story trussed up in vampiric garb, Neil Jordan's Byzantium has the same gloomy atmosphere that suffused his previous bloodsucking tale -- 1994's Interview with the Vampire, based on Anne Rice's genre-redefining favorite -- but adds some notable tweaks to vampire legend. For starters, sunlight isn't a problem for ageless 18th-century hooker Clara (Gemma Arterton) and her teen offspring Eleanor (Saorise Ronan), her actual biological daughter whom she converted to vampirism two hundred years ago. Although the two do most of their "work" after hours, they can and do move about in the daytime without fear of going up in flames. Additionally, their bite only delivers death rather than a second chance at life. The only way a new vampire can be born into the world is for the candidate in question to make the pilgrimage to a cavern on a remote island, where they'll be met by a demon that satiates its centuries-long thirst with their hemoglobin, turning the waterfalls that rain down outside the cave blood-red in the process.

Changes like that are what make the revamped vampire mythology that Jordan and screenwriter Moira Buffini (who adapted the screenplay from her own play) put forth in Byzantium so fascinating. Much more fascinating, I'm sorry to say, than the actual story the movie sets out to tell, which winds up being more of the same angst-ridden parents-just-don't-understand teen drama that seems particularly petty when you're technically 216 years old rather than 16. To be fair, Eleanor does have some legitimate reasons to feel so glum all the time. The fact that her mother continues to earn their living via the prostitution trade rankles her, as does their constant need to be on the move in order to stay one step ahead of the coven of male vampires from whom Clara stole the secret of immortality two centuries ago and who are eager to put an end to their eternal lives. Having relocated one more time to a beachside town, Eleanor finally decides that enough is enough and refuses to hide the family secret anymore, informing almost anyone who asks -- particularly the teenage boy (Caleb Landry Jones) with long hair, soulful eyes and a terminal cancer diagnosis who is clearly into her -- that she's an honest-to-blog vampire. Though if I were that kid, I'd fine her perpetually grumpy demeanor far more off-putting than her extracurricular activities.

Based on past performance, going into Byzantium, I assumed that the seriously skilled Ronan would run circles around ex-Bond Girl Arterton, who has a face and form the camera loves, but a mostly limited range. Thanks in large part to the wet blanket of a character she's forced to play, though, Ronan proves to be the weak link here, with her co-star instead handily walking away with the movie. Arterton's sultry presence and ripe sensuality makes her a natural fit for the vampire genre and Clara's backstory -- a prostitute who becomes a vampire suffragette of sorts by fighting the all-male establishment for the right to achieve life eternal -- is rich and compelling enough to be a movie in its own right. In fact, that's the story I wish Byzantium had told instead of dwelling on the to-familiar familial tension that comes to occupy center stage. We've seen mothers and daughters like this before, but we've never seen a vampire quite like Clara.

Get showtimes and tickets for this movie from Fandango.

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