Thursday, February 20, 2014


On the basis of the evidence here, Moira Buffini is my kind of playwright. Like many of my favorite British artists, she rejects the kitchen sink realism so prevalent in that country's cinema and theatre in favor of a more fanciful maximalism. At the same time, she uses genre and fantasist tropes to address and explore contemporary social concerns as diligently as any naturalist. It is no surprise then that Byzantium (adapted by Buffini from her play A Vampire Story) should address gender politics, family relations, the frailty of the body, and our relationship to our history within its story of a mother-daughter pair of vampires on the run from undead elders. What is pleasantly surprising is how entertaining and moving Byzantium turns out to be.

Buffini's script is gorgeously realized by director Neil Jordan, an old hand at adapting vampire literature by female authors. In the opening moments of the movie Jordan effortlessly balances two plotlines, as daughter Eleanor Webb (Saoirse Ronan) gently comforts an old age pensioner she's about to kill, while across town mother Clara (Gemma Arterton) is chased on foot from a neon-lit strip club through a shopping mall skylight to a dingy apartment by a mysterious but dogged pursuer. This kind of parallelism seems to run through the entire movie, and Jordan proves incredibly perceptive of many dualities running through Buffini's story: mother/daughter, past/present, living/undead, female/male, sex/violence. (Many of these seem to land during a stunning early moment in which Eleanor finds herself on a beach, face-to-face with her 19th-century self). The thing flows gorgeously, and the tale of the Webbs' vampiric origins unfolds deftly as their present-day difficulties escalate.

As commonplace as vampires seem to have become, it's no mean feat playing one well. Arterton, perhaps unsurprisingly, plays the now familiar blood-letting, leather-clad, ass-kicking female vampire with sleazy grace, but she's just as strong conveying the weariness of centuries in hiding, and the endless reservoir of love of an undead parent for her child. Ronan is just as strong in a quieter but equally deep role of an undead but ethical blood drinker, her pangs of conscience as strong as her thirst for blood, her need to tell her story sitting hand-in-hand with a longing to simply, finally connect. Buffini's depth & generosity extend to her male characters as well - Sam Riley and Jonny Lee Miller are strong as men who figure prominently in the Webbs' long lives; Daniel Mays and Caleb Henry Jones bring keenly felt (and very different) vulnerabilities to their roles as mortal men in the women's orbit.

Sean Bobbitt (cinematographer for some of last year's finest movies, including The Place Beyond The Pines and 12 Years A Slave) seems to capture an otherworldly luminosity unleashed by the Webbs in the dreary, everyday world they inhabit. I complained a while back that digital photography and presentation undermined the gothic atmosphere so desperately sought by the makers of The Woman in Black; perhaps I'm finally getting used to seeing such tales being told in this medium. Perhaps Bobbitt is simply a great cinematographer. The visual strengths of the movie are matched by its music, as Javier Navarette's score boosts the story with knowing, gentle intensity.

The whole thing feels like one of the best movies I've seen in recent memory. Byzantium finds new life and energy in the vampire story, and, finally, makes a compelling and persuasive case for the vitality of the 21st century horror movie. Long live the Webbs.

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