It's difficult to imagine that the vampire film could have anything new to say in these fang-xhausted post-Twilight days.
Especially from a director who already has waded in those crimson waters. Neil Jordan pulls off the improbable in Byzantium, his first vampire flick since his controversial 1994 adaptation of Anne Rice's Interview With the Vampire struck box office gold.
Lyrical, full of visually enthralling fantasy sequences punctuated by moments of intense, bloody violence, Byzantium is a literary, allusive piece from playwright Moira Buffini, whose film credits include the romantic dramedy Tamara Drewe and 2011's ferocious Jane Eyre adaptation starring Mia Wasikowska.
A strange blend of poetic cinema, Dickensian romance, and urban horror, the film is a melancholy meditation on the power of storytelling - of the human compulsion to weave tales and of the vital role stories play in giving our lives shape and meaning.
Jordan's films often live or die depending on his casting. It's impeccable here.
Saoirse Ronan (Hanna, The Host) stars as the film's heroine and narrator, Eleanor "Ella" Wells, an alienated teen living a near-destitute, peripatetic life with her mom, Clara (Tamara Drewe's Gemma Arterton), a stripper and prostitute who became pregnant by a customer when she was barely 13.
The story opens with the duo fleeing the scene of a murder, a cinderblock urban hell where Clara ekes out a living as a stripper. The rest of the film is set in a charming, run-down resort town on the English coast where the women decide to settle. At least, for a while. We learn they've been on the run for a long time. For as long as Ella can remember. For 200 years.
Fragmented flashbacks carefully woven into the story take us back to the Napoleonic Wars, when a 12-year-old Clara is raped by a pox-ridden syphilitic British navy captain (Jonny Lee Miller) who rewards her by selling her to a brothel. When she becomes pregnant with Ella, she's ordered to kill the baby, but finds herself "confounded by love," as Ella puts it.
She runs, but first she steals a secret jealously guarded by an ancient order of vampires named the Brotherhood - how to become like them. It's an unforgivable crime since women aren't allowed to join the club. Graver still, she turns Ella into a vampire. As a Brotherhood boss tells Clara, "a woman is not permitted to create."
We're firmly in comic-book territory here. But Byzantium is less akin to X-Men than it is to a serialized Dickens novel or one of Victor Hugo's fantastical adventure yarns. While it flirts with the ridiculous, the film manages to maintain a certain gravitas as its many stories unfold.
If Twilight is a teen fairy tale, then Byzantium is an adult fable that paints the human soul as an unfolding story that nourishes itself on other stories. The film celebrates its stories - about Ella and Clara's love for each other, about the navy captain, about the Brotherhood, about the myth of immortality. Not least, it's a story about the tradition of making vampire pictures.
It's also a sly feminist critique of Western civilization, where for 2,000 years only men were able to create art, politics, laws, and institutions.
As Clara tells a befuddled Brotherhood goon, her life's mission is "to punish those who prey on the weak. And to curb the power of men."
Contact Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
*** (out of four stars)
Directed by Neil Jordan. With Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, Sam Riley, Jonny Lee Miller. Distributed by IFC Films.
Running time: 1 hour, 58 mins.
Parent’s guide: profanity, nudity, violence, gore, syphilitic pox-ridden villain
Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse