Clara (Arterton) and her daughter Eleanor (Ronan), both vampires, have been on the run together from the Brotherhood, an order of male vampires, for 200 years. After being nearly caught by Darvell (Riley), a vampire who was involved in their creation, they abandon their current home and move to a faded English seaside town. Clara persuades weak-willed Noel (Daniel Mays) to let her run a brothel from Byzantium, his failing hotel, and Eleanor befriends a sickly youth, Frank (Caleb Landry Jones).
Vampire movies are not a passing trend in horror/fantasy, though movie vampires change with the times. They are always a good commercial bet, though. Neil Jordan’s last seaside fantasy, Ondine, was about a ‘selkie’ (another female supernatural being) and barely rippled filmgoers’ consciousness. That might explain why he’s looking at the blood-drinking undead for the second time in his career.
A generation ago, Jordan directed the sumptuous film of Anne Rice’s Interview With The Vampire, a starrily cast study of the relationship between two male vampires who are at once lovers and parent and child. Nearly 20 years on, Byzantium — written by Moira Buffini (Tamara Drewe, Jane Eyre) from her play A Vampire Story — is a return to the genre. Here, a pair of mother-and-daughter vampires cling and clash throughout the centuries like Louis and Lestat in Interview, evading an organised society of male bloodsuckers who disapprove of their very existence. Whereas the earlier film was an elegant and well-dressed Gothic, this makes even its historical flashbacks seem cold and uncomfortable and imbues all its characters with dread and desperation.
Each vampire story has to reinvent the rules. Buffini’s fangless creatures sprout thornlike thumbnails to open their victims’ veins, and the process of transformation from regular human to immortal is uniquely folkloric, involving a boat trip to a mist-shrouded island, a stone hut embedded in a waterfall and a cloud of seabirds. Starting in realist mode with mama monster Clara (Gemma Arterton) as a contemporary lap-dancer who keeps cheesewire handy to behead unwelcome callers and daughter Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) haunting council estates for OAPs to bleed, Byzantium looks to pre-Stoker literature for the early 19th century flashbacks which explain their origins. Darvell (Sam Riley) and Ruthven (Jonny Lee Miller), naval officers whose casual attitude to women has centuries-long consequences, take their names from versions of a story told by Lord Byron (A Fragment) and John Polidori (The Vampyre) which introduced the vampire into English prose.
There’s a touch of early ’70s films like Daughters Of Darkness and The Velvet Vampire, though making its vampires mother and daughter means it doesn’t default to Hammer-like lesbian kink (Interview probably gave Jordan enough gay vampires for one career). In an eerie, chilly, tatty-yet-genteel seaside town, the couple fall out — Clara preys on those who deserve to die while Eleanor seeks out those who don’t want to live — and their pursuers close in. A vein of humour is punctured as Eleanor is red-flagged by teachers because she takes seriously an assignment to write the unvarnished truth about her early life and turns in an assignment that reads like a Gothic fairy tale, but this is mostly a melancholy, strange picture.
A mixture of tough and wistful and reflective and brutal, this is the ideal vampire movie for Twi-hards whove had their hearts broken for the first time and want to move on to a less cosy vision of eternal romance with a side order of addiction.