“Byzantium” owes more to the both endearing and creepy Swedish vampire art film “Let the Right One In,” and its American remake, than to “Interview with the Vampire,” Irish director Neil Jordan’s 1994 Hollywood adaptation of Anne Rice’s best seller, and his last foray into the popular bloodsucking genre.
What “Byzantium,” opening Friday, shares most is a perennial teenager who longs to be human. In this case, it’s the more-than-200-year-old Eleanor Webb (Saoirse Ronan), who takes up with Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), a leukemia-stricken waiter she desperately wants to tell her life story to.
The reflective Eleanor is a vampire with a conscience who tries not to lie about her life and takes only the blood of sick seniors who give their consent to die. That’s in stark contrast to the older Clara (Gemma Arterton), the companion Eleanor refers to as “my savior, my burden, my muse” who is all too happy to sate herself on the throats of men who prey on the weak.
The two women, whose relationship won’t be spoiled here, take up in the rundown Byzantium seaside hotel on the coast of England. Clara, who has a penchant for push-up bras, opens the movie performing a lap dance and is soon starting a brothel as a disapproving Eleanor whiles away the time writing stories about her life that are tossed to the wind.
These are not vampires bothered by sunlight – they call themselves “soucriants,” a Carribbean folk tale version of the myth translated as “witch vampires” – and there’s no budding “Twilight” romance to be found. This is a heavily back-storied tale of two very different women, and the disapproval they’re met with by a secret society of vampires whose “code” doesn’t look kindly on women.
When Clara ignores an edict, it’s enough to send two enforcers on the women’s trail, made all the easier by the tell-tale sign of mutilated necks left behind and Eleanor’s careless efforts to connect with Frank.
The atmospheric film, with a soundtrack that ranges from classical piano to Etta James, has its share of blood and gore – especially with Clara’s penchant for snapping off heads – but falls far short of the suspense and unearthly scariness found in “Let the Right One In.”
Both actresses pull off their yin-yang roles with aplomb, with the edge to Ronan’s long-suffering earnestness. Her gripping scene with a teacher whose amusement turns to realization as Eleanor conveys her story in unmistakable terms, is the film’s most chilling.
Two and a half stars
Starring: Gemma Arterton, Saoirse Ronan, Caleb Landry Jones
Director: Neil Jordan
Running time: 118 minutes
Rating: R for violence, blood and gore, sexual content and language.
The Lowdown: Two vampires living an unsettled existence are tracked down by a secret society of fellow bloodsuckers.