Blu-ray Review: Byzantium

STUDIO: IFC/MPI | DIRECTOR: Neil Jordan | CAST: Gemma Arterton, Saoirse Ronan, Sam Riley, Jonny Lee Miller, Caleb Landry Jones, Daniel Mays
BLU-RAY & DVD RELEASE DATE: 10/29/2013 | PRICE: DVD $24.98, Blu-ray $29.98
BONUSES: interviews with cast and crew
SPECS: R | 118 min. | Horror fantasy | 2.35:1 widescreen | Dolby Digital 5.1/DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 | English and Spanish subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie | Audio | Video | Overall

Okay, if your older than, say, 38, then you’re probably thinking you might not ever want to see another vampire film again, what with the Twilight Saga, The Vampire Diaries, and a deluge of other YA-ish material.

Well, we’ve got one for you. Lift the ban for a couple of hours and check out Neil Jordan’s Byzantium.

It’s a low-key but atmospheric tale about Clara (Gemma Arterton, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters) and the younger Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan, Hanna), two centuries-old women with vampiric tendencies who leave a string of victims in their wake as they flee to a small English coastal town. Though they share a thirst for blood, each approaches their needs differently—Clara works as a prostitute who brings a violent end to those who would take advantage of women, while the compassionate Eleanor preys on older, sickly people and offers them a merciful exit as they near the end of their lives.

Byzantium movie scene

Vampire Gemma Arterton takes a bite out of life in Byzantium.

Upon the ladies’ arrival in their new town where they set up residence at a hotel called Byzantium, the story fork off in two directions, one revealing the story and secrets behind Clara and Eleanor being made into vampire in 18th Century England, and the other detailing their increasingly dire situation with lovers, victims and a pair of all-too-male figures from years past.

Written by Moira Buffini from her play, Byzantium’s story questions the price of vampiric immortality from a woman’s perspective, which probably sounds easier to generalize than to put into words (and pictures). As if being a vampire isn’t enough, being a woman of common standing in early England is no cakewalk either. Both Clara and Eleanor’s survival is fueled by their femininity and feelings about men, who’ve given them the “gift” of struggling through the immortality they never asked for, while providing the sustenance the gals need to survive.

Director Neil Jordan has done the vampire waltz once before in 1994’s Interview with the Vampire, but that one rings as big-studio hollow compared to the carefully scaled richness of Byzantium.  He’s clearly invested in Buffini’s story, injecting the appropriate movement and blood-letting into what began as a staged drama. Jordan does well by his actors, too (and vice versa). The sexy Ms. Arterton is delicious and desirable as the vamp who gleefully wields the power she has over her male victims. As the eternally sad young vampire who finds she her emotions stirred for the first time in a millennium (by a gangly Caleb Landry-Jones, who’s quite fine), the somber Ms. Ronan is also excellent.

Shot by cinematographer Chris Bobbitt (Shame), the film’s daytime sequences have a depressed, washed-out look and the nights come alive with the kind of neon (but still toned-down) source illumination that one associates with a crumbling coastal resort town. A fading glow…

The disc’s sole bonus feature is a collection of brief EPK-kish interviews the principal cast and crew members.

They’re led by Ms. Arterton, who reminds us that has worked with screenwriter  Moira Buffini previously on Tamara Drewe. (“I didn’t even know she was writing a vampire movie,” she laughs.), She declares the Byzantium script to be “best thing I’ve read in a long time” and offers how she most loved the running, jumping, killing and overall physicality of her character. Jordan and Bobbitt get a little repetitive in their segments, but both agree that shooting on the ARRI Alexa digital camera was a joy and that it yielded a wonderful  look to the film. They’re right.


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About Laurence

Founder and editor Laurence Lerman saw Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest when he was 13 years old and that’s all it took. He has been writing about film and video for more than a quarter of a century for magazines, anthologies, websites and most recently, Video Business magazine, where he served as the Reviews Editor for 15 years.