“My story can never be told. I write of what I cannot speak. The truth.” So begins the tale of Eleanor Webb, trapped as an eternal teenager, sixteen years old for two hundred years, desperately wishing to move on, to be an adult. Her mother, Clara, by contrast, cannot move forward, having plied her trade for two centuries, unwilling to adapt to new times or new possibilities, never willing to settle, always moving as soon as the past they run from threatens to catch up with them.
Torching their flat to conceal the decapitated remains of a pursuer, a brief appearance by Eddie, The Sleepwalking Cannibal‘s Thure Lindhardt, the pair flee to Hastings, where Clara stumbles upon good fortune while turning tricks. Noel (Outcasts‘ Daniel Mays) is the owner of a rundown hotel, the Byzantium, where Clara and Eleanor can shelter and in turn she will turn it into a business, easing his (and their) financial problems.
Director Neil Jordan has successfully visited the supernatural before, most notably in his adaptations of Angela Carter’s The Company of Wolves and Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. Here the script is Moira Buffini’s own adaptation of her stage play A Vampire Story, and while Jordan has crafted a hypnotic and alluring facade and the ever reliable Saoirse Ronan, so brave and strong inHanna, channels the conflicts of Eleanor and even the too often superficial Gemma Arterton performs well as Clara, it is the inadequacies of the meandering script which are the downfall.
Though magnificently staged, particularly in the period flashbacks which tell how Clara’s life was unmade through the indifferent cruelty of Jonny Lee Miller’s Captain then remade in darkness as she steals the gift intended for him by his former associate, Sam Riley’s Darvell, all the cast are underused in a film that in two hours strives for intense and brooding but manages only to arrive at tiresome and sulking.
What it lacks in drive, it makes up for in elegance, but this could have been achieved with more brevity; Hastings is washed out and run down, drained of colour and life in the same way as Clara and Eleanor; only in the past does colour exist, while the present is symbolised by grey skies and cold grey waves washing across gravel beaches and smashing against the burned out remains of the pier, an unloved anachronism that stands in defiance of time. The only intrusion into the muted palette is the harsh yellow neon of the hotel signage, the only natural colour the gushing red of blood.
Visually, the standout moment is the mist shrouded Unnamed Isle where Darvell is made immortal, though that impact is diminished each of the multiple times the scene is recreated for the different characters. Crucially, a narrative lapse undermines the motivation of the prime historical antagonist which drives all subsequent events; the Captain blames Clara for his failure to achieve immortality because she stole the map, yet as he accompanied Darvell on the previous expedition he must surely already know the location? Similar counterintuitive behaviour is demonstrated when Eleanor writes stunningly detailed and sophisticated vampire stories in class, and rather than praising her skill and imagination, her teacher contacts Clara and threatens to report her to child services and the police.
The ideas and execution of Byzantium are to be praised, but they are underdeveloped, too often resembling a child playing in grown up clothes and wishing to be taken seriously, and considering the dearth of sophisticated and mature darkly fantastical material and the talent squandered here and the level of expectation associated with those involved that the level of engagement is that of watching a spider struggles as it is engulfed in tree sap; the resulting amber is beautiful, but it is an artefact rather than art.