Opens Fri., July 5 at Varsity. Rated R. 118 minutes.
Sixteen is a lousy age for a vampire: perpetually virginal, stuck with feelings that aren’t going anywhere, and bossed by a family member who—being undead herself—never ages either. This is the dilemma for Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), a 200-year-old teenager who’s currently mooning about a rotting coastal town in Britain. The protective instincts of Clara (Gemma Arterton) have resulted in frustration for Eleanor and debasement for Clara, whose methods of providing run along the lines of stripping and hooking. Admittedly, after 200 years, she’s probably gotten good at her work.
Eleanor writes down all the things she can’t say out loud about her life, and sometimes other people read these musings—usually before they are going to die, drained with great delicacy by our thoughtful heroine. The Twilight aspects come into sharper focus when vampire elders (including Sam Riley) chase down our heroines for perceived transgressions against the race, or something. Byzantium is based on a play by Moira Buffini, who also scripted, and the aim is higher than those hormonal vamps from the Stephenie Meyer universe. The fragrant seaside setting helps, and the material gets its ideal director, Neil Jordan, who put werewolves into fairy-tale motion in The Company of Wolves and set Anne Rice’s vampires into heat in Interview With the Vampire.
Alas, Jordan gives Byzantium his nocturnal mood, all blurry lights and fishy air, but he hasn’t cracked the code for bringing the situation to life. Both underdone and overcooked, the film is best in its most intimate moments—dear, sweet Eleanor patiently waiting for a victim to volunteer to be taken out of this world, so our girl can feed—and clumsy in its supernatural crescendos of blood running down hillsides in torrents.
The riveting Ronan, uncannily compelling in Atonement and the otherwise misfired The Lovely Bones, is out-of-sorts here. So low-key is her and Jordan’s conception of the role that she’s overshadowed by Arterton, who at least gets to exhibit the fury that most female vampires are only occasionally allowed to uncork. Arterton had already displayed her skills as a fantasy badass as Gretel in Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, so maybe the casting is too on-the-nose. Imagine the actresses switching roles here, and suddenly you’ve got a crazier and more intriguing movie.