BYZANTIUM: the Next “Interview with the Vampire” Flick?

Director: Neil Jordan
Main Cast: Gemma Arterton (Clara Webb); Saoirse Ronan (Eleanor Webb); Caleb Landry Jones (Frank)
Duration: 118 min
Release Date: 2013 (TBD)

I’ve been a huge fan of the vampire genre ever since the release of Neil Jordan’s “Interview with the Vampire” (1994) starring Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, and Kirsten Dunst; it’s just one of my absolute favourite movies of all time. So when I found out Neil was going to screen his new vamp flick “Byzantium” at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF 2012), I was beyond ecstatic. Finally, a movie free of appalling visual effects, hair-pulling teenybopper love triangles, and outrageous vampire myths (i.e. a shimmering skin condition when exposed to the sun). TIFF tickets were sold out immediately for the first screening at Ryerson Theatre, but I did manage to get in from the Rush Line after waiting 1.5 hours in the cold… unfortunately, my seats were crap-tacular and I ended up in the first row to the very left. It was neck-wrenching goodness, but paid off in the end when the director and cast of Byzantium came out to the front stage for a Q&A. Oh TIFF, how I love thee.

And back to Byzantium. Neil Jordan offers a vampire movie rich in storytelling from the point of view of Eleanor, a vampire forever as a sixteen year old, who has a conscience and need to share the dark truth about what she is. Her character is quite the opposite from her mother, Clara, who is a strong, confident, and brutal vampire with an instinct for survival. The two women eventually find refuge in a run-down guesthouse named “Byzantium”, which Clara turns into a seedy brothel to make ends meet. Meanwhile, Eleanor develops a relationship with a boy named Frank, who she decides to confide in once she learns about his suicidal tendencies after being diagnosed with leukemia. Without giving too much away, the story of their past unravels and starts to catch up with them.

The vampires in Byzantium are a little different than what we’re used to seeing on screen. They still live off of fresh blood and are eternally young, but they can walk the Earth in sunlight (no shimmer side effects), aren’t afraid of garlic or crosses, and don’t suck blood with their fangs. Instead, the movie went for more of a traditional approach to drinking blood using a long sharp thumbnail to pierce flesh. They also didn’t seem to have super powers like flying or super strength, but Clara sure kicked ass when she needed to survive.

Eleanor’s storytelling was romantic and sympathetic the way Louis’ was in “Interview with the Vampire”, so I was really happy with that. The actual story of Clara and Eleanor was predictable and old, but I did like their take on the creation of vampires, although some may think it’s a cop out to the transformation ritual most people are used to seeing. The ending of the movie (I won’t spoil it here) seemed too convenient and abrupt, and there just wasn’t enough gore or action as I would’ve liked to see. Even when they did show a few gory scenes, it didn’t flow seamlessly from all the storytelling that was done. Having said that, Byzantium, unfortunately, does not fare well compared to “Interview with the Vampire“, “Bram Stocker’s Dracula” (Francis Ford Coppola), or “Let the Right One In” (Tomas Alfredson, original Swedish version 2008). But it still beats all other movies in the vampire genre.

TIFF Screening of “Byzantium” (Gemma Arterton, Saoirse Ronan, Caleb Landry Jones, Neil Jordan)

I thoroughly enjoyed the cast of Byzantium though. Gemma Arterton (Clara) was electric and sexy, even in person as herself! Saoirse Ronan (Eleanor) is a very talented up-and-coming actress who I absolutely loved in “Hanna“. Despite her ass-kicking role in “Hanna“, in Byzantium and in person, she is still a demure young girl. Her pairing with Caleb Landry Jones (from “X-Men: First Class“) worked very well as I thought they were both awkward in appearance and personality, but the whole world seemed to stop in time around them. In person, Caleb is extremely reserved and sarcastic, but he’s still an interesting actor and I look forward to seeing him in more films to come.

My Overall Rating for this Movie: Half Price Tuesdays