Neil Jordan gets back into the bloodsucking game for the first time since 1994’s The Interview With The Vampire and like that uneven if enjoyable romp, Byzantium finds the director pacing around the subject matter rather than going straight for the fleshy jugular.
Jordan’s themes of magic realism and supernatural femmes (think The Company of Wolves, Ondine and, perhaps, The Crying Game) are his main focus in a vamp tale that combines a ponderous 18th century back story with the quiet desperation of Mike Leigh-like reality.
Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan play Clara and Eleanor, a pair of 200-year-old vampires (or soucriants as screenwriter Moira Buffini has it) on the run from a shadowy fraternity called The Brotherhood. These Vampirellas have transgressed the Bro's code by mere dint of the fact that they are female and yet continue to live on the blood of mortals. So clearly The Brotherhood haven’t read any Germaine Greer or, indeed, seen any Ingrid Pitt movies.
It is a set up that makes for some splatteringly good action scenes and inventive chases and there is a convincing bond between Arterton and Ronan's characters, a pairing not just different in looks but in temperment. Ronan’s pensive and conflicted Eleanor struggles with the burden of her terrible past and will only drink the blood of those who are about to die while by day, she pours her anguish into a diary which she then tears out page by page and leaves to the wind.
Clara, played like a bodice-ripping Nell Gwynn meets EastEnders harpie by former Bond girl Arterton, is a hooker with a heart of ice. When mother and daughter fetch up in a faded seaside town complete with gaudy funfair (another Jordan staple), they chance upon sad sack Noel (Daniel Mays) and land up in Byzantium, the gothic guesthouse where the enterprising Clara soon sets up a brothel.
The Brotherhood, who have all the grim determination and natty clobber of G Men, utter a lot of gnomic rubbish about ancient oaths while Arterton’s bawdy language and bloody urges are graphic yet cartoonish. It is left to the otherworldly Ronan to lend Byzantium a degree of gravitas even if her teen love affair with local boy and leukaemia sufferer Frank was never going to have the chilling and giddy pleasures of Let The Right One In.
Buffini and Jordan, a frequent visitor to the netherworlds of myth and magic, also do much to subvert vampire flick norms. The gore is ladled on with Taranantinoesque glee and the scenes where the vampire origin myth is turned into a baptismal ritual under a waterfall of blood are both slightly silly and visually stunning.
Tom Hollander and Maria Doyle Kennedy provide some form of light relief as concerned local teachers but Byzantium loses a lot of its lustre when we are forced to endure a series of overwrought flashbacks set in gloomy Georgian drawing rooms.
Still, sound tracked by Debussy and Schubert piano interludes, Jordan’s latest is a worthy and refreshing take on a genre that just won’t die.