Gemma Arterton has been, for the past few years, an odd bombshell in search of a good genre-role: after playing Strawberry Fields, the more fun and less-used Bond girl in Quantum of Solace, she took on gods and demons in Clash of the Titans and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, plus whatever they were fighting in Prince of Persia. In Byzantium, she plays, perhaps inevitably, a vampire. Arterton has a striking, comic-bookish physicality; she's broader-shouldered and less slight of frame than some of her waifish contemporaries. Her vampirism, then, isn't sallow or skeletal: her Clara is a working woman, albeit as some manner of stripper or prostitute as the movie opens—a less risky profession after you've achieved, more or less, immortality.
She's also a working immortal mother, and her daughter Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), like the girl in Let the Right One In, has been a teenager for a very long time. As the movie opens, the pair must flee the neon lights of an unnamed city for a quieter coastal town, though both locations have plenty of opportunities for framing the two women in slanty hallway shots. Clara finds the closest approximation of urban neon at a rundown carnival, where she returns to hooking, while Eleanor mopes around, meets Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), and kinda-sorta attends a local school.
Director Neil Jordan makes his return to the vampire underworld following the famous Interview with a Vampire, which featured Tom Cruise at his movie-star peak and Brad Pitt hot on Cruise's heels. This movie glows with less star wattage, but it's a livelier, more original meditation on the promise and peril of eternal life. As with Pitt's Interview character, Ronan's Eleanor wants to be heard; forbidden from seeking out an actual listener, she tells the long, gothic backstory on paper and casts the pages out of windows. The movie shows us this backstory in bits and pieces as different characters come across it, an ambitious and only occasionally clumsy structure (and one that only occasionally invites silly pressing questions. For example: they're both so sloppy and indiscreet with their feeding; how could they have lasted this long?)
Having Eleanor go on and on about the tale she can never share drains the movie of some immediacy; it adopts Eleanor's seriousness, even though Clara has more agency as a character. The prostitution-heavy backstory itself is also a bit pat, as is the memory/repression dichotomy between tortured Eleanor and her mother, who just wants to power through. The contrast works better in shorthand, like the refrain of "don't"/"I won't" that the pair exchanges and repeats throughout the film—and just as Jordan capitalizes on Arterton's cartoon looks, he takes advantage of Ronan's eerie stillness, too. The women take center stage here; the quivery man who takes them both in? He turns out to be a passing sap, while Sam Riley and a sneering Jonny Lee Miller flit in and out of the narrative. Byzantium has some quiet, artsy flourishes, but really it's just a decent pulp workout with moments of human (and neatly inhuman) feeling.
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