Monday, December 9, 2013

DVD of the Week: Byzantium

Ah, Vampires. Now the Zombie is the go-to-guy for monsters who really mess you up, the Vampire has been pretty solidly cemented in it's role as the Horror Icon who is really just you, the mis-understood outsider. The Van Helsings of this world have become the oppressors, and the Draculas the heroes. Lonely, tortured, mopey, pretty heroes. I blame Anne Rice.  Or Francis Ford Coppola. Or Both. And of course the mopey teenage angst sort of Vampire Story is even more dominant with the recent success of Twilight, and it's interesting that this weeks film, Byzantium, seems to want to be like both Rice and Meyer in its two lead characters arcs.

Directed by Neil Jordan, who is no stranger to gothic fantasy or vampires, Byzantium follows Clara (Gemma Artheton) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) as a pair of vampires posing as sisters (where they're actually mother and daughter) as they hide out in a English Boarding House. The film gradually unfolds it story through narrated flashbacks, filling in how they both came to vampires in the first place, and what they are hiding from, whilst Clara tries to make some money before on again and Eleanor forms and attachment to a local boy. The main problem with the film is that these two arcs don't feel terribly balanced, and it skews the film away from being more than solidly "alright".

Eleanor's story feels terribly familiar. Despite being 200 years old, she's still very much a 16 year old, lonely, isolated, and looking for her place in the world. Somehow, in two centuries, Clara has never really bothered to explain to her why they are constantly on the run, which leads to a fairly standard mother-daughter tension. You'd also think that in 200 years she's managed to have had a crush before, but the reticence and shyness that she deals with mopey, long-haired emo waiter Frank indicates probably not. This may sound harsh, and the arc itself is fine and all, but it feels very familiar, the sort of thing people think teenagers want to watch stories about, whether they want to or not.

On the other hand, Clara's story is more from the Anne Rice school - all blood and gothic overtones. Young Clara is taken away by a dashing officer who sells her to prostitution and countless other mistreatments, and when she breaks free of him (culminating in "stealing" her immortality) he takes his revenge on her daughter, so Clara has to make her immortal too, to save her. Clara carries the mythology section of the film, with the origin stories and the relationship to the Brotherhood - a sort of vampiric boys-club who take their "No Gurls Allowed" rules pretty seriously.

For me, Claras arc works a lot better as the gradual reveal of her storyline throws perspective backwards down the film to make you re-appraise her in a more sympathetic light. I'm not sure it any more original than Eleanors, but it feels deeper, and Artheton puts in a great performance as the fractured, damaged character. It does surprise me that Byzantium hasn't had much of a release beyond the festival circuit though, and you could do a lot worse than its moody, lyrical style. I'm just not sure it brings anything new to the table.