Published Oct 29, 2013Because the general viewing public prefers horror cinema to require minimal emotional and intellectual investment, seemingly satisfied with cheap, visceral thrills and chaste romance fantasies, Neil Jordan's masterful Byzantium has been all but completely ignored outside of the festival circuit. Now, on home video, movie fans with a taste for blood more akin to the boundary-breaking artfulness of Thirst, Let the Right One In and Jordan's own Interview with the Vampire can discover the gritty poetic beauty of the Irish director's return to the world of the strange, sexy and horrifying.
Telling the tale of a mother and daughter coping with immortality together, Byzantium approaches its story from two time periods: the modern age, in which Clara (Gemma Arterton, giving one of the best performances of her career) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) temporarily seek refuge in a small seaside town, and sometime in the 17th century, when these lovely bloodsuckers were transformed into what they are now. An ancient boys' club of immortals is hunting the two ladies for reasons that don't become clear until the rich and rough themes of Moira Buffini's (Tamara Drewe) script rise to the surface, adding a sense of urgency and tension to the drama of facing a potential eternity without intimate company. Eleanor manages her despair by writing down the story of her life — one that she can never share — and tossing the crumpled up pages out the window, where they're believed to be nothing more than impressive prose by anyone who lays eyes on her words. Meanwhile, her mother, Clara, is consumed by her duty to protect and provide using her physical attributes.
Meticulously composed, Byzantium takes a hard look at how men abuse power that would be handled much more delicately in the hands of women, frequently shooting the stars through compartmentalized and blurry glass frames to suggest how the warped lens of historical misogyny skews perspective. Not a lot can be said without spoiling a few twists and turns, but anyone willing to engage with Jordan's heady visual text will find plenty of stimulating metaphorical discourse on gender politics. Others less keen on probing for meaning should find a lot to enjoy in the picture's gorgeous lighting, cinematography and art design, not to mention the wonderful performances by both leads.
The special features are unfortunately rather slim, consisting of only ten talking head interviews with the cast and crew. Jordan and Buffini in particular have sufficient insights on the film to share to make the features worthwhile, despite how welcome additional in-depth coverage and conversation would be. Four principle cast members, including Arterton and Ronan, contribute their thoughts to the process, as do two producers, the cinematographer, the stunt coordinator, the production designer and lead makeup artist, Lynn Johnston. Even without a lot of extras, Byzantium is an absolute must-own for any and all fans of intelligent genre cinema. (Mongrel Media)