Byzantium (2012)

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, Caleb Landry Jones, Johnny Lee Miller, Sam Riley, Tom Hollander, Uri Gavriel

Directed by: Neil Jordan

Rating: 1 2 3

Gemma Arterton as Clara and Saoirse Ronan as Eleanor in Neil Jordan's Byzantium

Bloody vampires! Never satisfied unless they're the centre of attention, always telling their stories, endlessly self-mythologising melodramatically, writing their memoirs, recording voiceovers, getting their lives immortalised (ha!) on film.

And 206-year-old 16-year old Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) is no exception. As she and her brassy, busty vampire mother Clara (Gemma Arterton) move from place to place, leaving behind a trail of corpses, Eleanor is compelled to write and rewrite her story, committing the pages to the wind each time. Each woman justifies this lifestyle with dubious morality: Clara (who earns their keep the old fashioned way) preys on men who prey on women, while sensitive Eleanor acts as a sort of euthanistic angel of death, taking only those who are ready and willing.

But when the pair arrive in the peaceful seaside town of Northhaven, where Clara sets up a brothel in a deserted guest house called The Byzantium, Eleanor's story starts to change. Because here she meets Frank (Antiviral's Caleb Landry Jones, the new go-to guy when you need a young actor who looks half dead). A leukemia sufferer who's time is running out, Frank persuades Eleanor to share the secret she harbours. But according to Clara's code for survival, telling stories is forbidden and anyone with 'the knowledge' must die. But of course, for vampires, death is not the end...

This is not director Neil Jordan's first foray into the underworld of the vampire: back in 1994 he infamously took on Anne Rice's cult classic Interview with the Vampire, incensing diehard Lestat fans by casting Tom Cruise in the lead role – a role in which he unexpectedly excelled.

Gemma Arterton and heaving cleavage in Byzantium

And certainly there are overtones of Interview in Byzantium, despite its more prosaic setting. So we have the heaving bosoms quivering over low-cut, Empire-line dresses, dastardly, Byronic bounders, guttering candles, billiard tables and syphilitic sex of the Napoleonic era; we have a shady, Mafia-style 'brotherhood' of vampires, a dark primeval mythology and, of course, the thirst, the hunger for blood.

But Byzantium is not a straight Anne Rice rip-off: it ploughs its own (at times baffling) channel, mixing elements of traditional vampire lore with a nice new twist on the genesis myth, then throwing in shades of Vanity Fair (Clara, like Becky Sharp, is the ultimate ruthless survivor) and Daughters of Darkness (the mother/daughter dynamic echoing the relationship between the countess and her young protegées, plus of course it's set in a hotel). Eleanor and Frank's mismatched teen romance even has something of Twilight about it, although thankfully without the glittery make-up, contact lenses or stupid fast running.

Like the best gothic tales, the story of Byzantium unwraps itself like an onion, shedding layer after layer, story with story, as the narration passes between characters who, whether alive or now dead, are all of questionable veracity. But, like Melmoth the Wanderer and Frankenstein, it takes its own sweet time to get going, only really fully grabbing my attention when Eleanor and Frank meet.

Caleb Landry Jones as Frank in Byzantium

As the only light-hearted moment in an otherwise determinedly po-faced film, a brief clip from Hammer's Dracula Prince of Darkness, suggests, vampires have come a long way since the days of Christopher Lee and Barbara Shelley. Whether this is a good thing or not is another matter: sometimes I think I'd take a good, old fashioned, befanged, Technicolor 1960s vamp over the 21st century's introverted, naval-gazing incarnations any day. An uneasy mishmash of past bloodsucker movies, Byzantium neverthless manages to offer an interesting take on the vampire legend, but if you're expecting anything even half as exciting and sexy as Tom Cruise jumping into an open-topped sports car, adjusting the lacy cuffs of his flouncy 18th century shirt and turning Guns'n'Roses up to eleven, you can forget it.

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