Forget superpowers and sparkly weddings and crazy dirt sex. The vampires in Neil Jordan's quiet, subversively funny new movie Byzantium are dealing with real problems. Like how to kill, but maintain your moral code. And how to live apart from your mother after 200 years. This is the smartest and most rewarding vampire movie of the decade.
Told from the point of view of Eleanor (the amazing Saoirse Ronan), Byzantium is set in an anonymous seaside town in England. There, Eleanor and her mother Clara are trying to create a life together, while also keeping the darkest secret that anybody can have: They have to drink blood to live. Raised in a convent in the early nineteenth century, Eleanor yearns to tell the truth about her life — but can only write her own story in a notebook whose pages she throws away as soon as she fills them. Clara, a self-described harlot whose childhood was a lot rougher than Eleanor's, has no regrets about living a life steeped in lies.
The two women look more like sisters than mother and daughter, and their complicated, centuries-long relationship feels vital and realistic. They fight like two people who love each other, but see the world in dramatically different ways. Clara has always taken care of getting money for them, mostly through sex work or sugar daddies, and she's allowed her daughter the luxury of resenting their lifestyle. In a sense, Eleanor's pouting is a sign of how protected she's been from the real threat that looms over them — a threat that's much worse than poverty.
The film dreamily takes us closer and closer to revelations about what Clara is really protecting Eleanor from. Some of those threats come welling up out of the past, while others are simply traumatic memories from a time long gone. Gemma Arterton is magnificent as Clara, a woman who is so full of a desire to live that she manages to outwit and outmaneuver an ancient "brotherhood" of vampires who have never allowed women into their ranks before.
We see Clara's struggle slowly coming into focus against a backdrop of nineteenth century patriarchy transposed onto supernatural history. Hiding from the past, as well as from the prying eyes of their neighbors, the two women settle into an abandoned hotel called Byzantium. It's run by a schlubby but kind man who takes a shine to Clara, and it's testimony to the graceful storytelling in this film that we never view her latest sugar daddy as a dupe or pawn. He's lonely, and understands that Clara just needs him for his resources, but still he develops a sympathetic relationship with the women — and even tries to take on an avuncular role with Eleanor.
There are moments of campy grandeur in this film, including in the stunningly original transformation sequences, and they add sly touch of humor to what is also a deeply moving look at (very) long-term relationships. Director Neil Jordan, whose character studies in movies like The Crying Game and series like The Borgias reveal the extremes of human relationships, does an incredible job showing us what holds Eleanor and Clara together, as well as what is going to drive them apart.
Ultimately vampirism is just another human condition, something that our characters cope with in ways that vacillate between ethical and ruthless. Perhaps the best part of this movie is that each new revelation brings the story into sharper focus, rather than leading us down a rabbit hole of poorly-explained mysteries.
By the time the film is over, you'll understand completely what has driven the characters to be the people they are. At the same time, there are plenty of alluring ambiguities here, and multiple ways to interpret Eleanor's history. It's an immensely fun and satisfying tale, whose characters you'll be thinking about long after the story ends. Byzantium isn't just a fascinating new take on the vampire subgenre — it's also quite simply a brilliant movie about how people change over time, and how the world changes with them.