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Vampire stories tend to be metaphors for illicit lust — there's all that necking and swapping of fluids, not to mention the way that too much garlic can really kill the mood. Lust is certainly part of the equation in Byzantium, director Neil Jordan's new reworking of bloodsucker legend, but in this film it's also tied inextricably to power, money, and history. The supernatural sisters of this film, fighting off the oppression of an ancient all-male vampire cult, sometimes seem to be cinematically righting historical wrongs like unchained Djangos, with Jordan (The Crying Game) repurposing vampire movies the same way that Tarantino did westerns. But where Tarantino was exuberantly throwing bombs at old taboos, Jordan is stately and mournful, looking for signs of hope in the crumbling of an old world's ways.
That old world is conjured up by the title, but Byzantium more specifically is the name of the ramshackle hotel on the English coast where Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) have found a refuge. As shot by Jordan and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, it's a boarded-up, broken-windowed landscape of urban decay — the last glowing embers here are the garish neon signs of the strip clubs where Clara makes a living. (She soon turns the hotel into a brothel, obtaining the necessary funding and talent through strategic seduction and slaughter.) Eleanor is the more dignified of the pair, satisfying her own hunger by acting as a sort of vampire Kevorkian to the suffering elderly. But she's also possessed with the urge to tell the life story of her sister and herself — all 200 years of it — despite her sister's warnings to keep it hidden.
We see some of that story in flashbacks involving a kindly army officer (Sam Riley) and another (Jonny Lee Miller) with a habit of defiling women and forcing them into prostitution — cursing them in a way not entirely different from a vampire's bite. And the sisters eventually find themselves in a cult of real vampires. The cult decrees that only male vampires have the right to create new vampires. But Clara isn't the type to easily give up her reproductive rights, to put it one way, which leads to a centuries-long chase that shakes up the rules of this established old order.
Jordan's last attempt at the vampire genre was 1994's Interview with the Vampire, which suffered from slavish adherence to the plot-heavy Anne Rice novels it was based on (though Tom Cruise's performance as an omni-sexual vampire dandy remains a highlight). Here, he seems freed from standard vampire tropes, thanks to screenwriter Moira Buffini's own revisionism (these vampires, for example, don't fear sunlight — one feeds on the beachside), and those variations seem to have fired his visual imagination. He lingers on twisted fairy-tale images of razor-sharp nails tracing across skin before piercing it, reflections in geometrically-arranged funhouse mirrors, and particularly a ritualized initiation process involving a waterfall of blood. (The visuals here seem equally inspired by Renaissance frescoes and the lush Art Deco dystopias of the Bioshock video games.)
Occasionally, Jordan's taste for moody, slow-burn tableaus can sap the movie of its momentum, and the piecemeal reveal of plot through flashbacks can sometimes feel like more of a nuisance than a necessary structural device. But the performances hold you. As the more vampish of the vampires, Arterton is a delight — a lingerie-clad, proto-feminist avenger with a Cockney punk sneer. And Ronan (an actress talented enough to have survived a role in Stephenie Meyer's latest puppy-love pod-snatcher romance The Host) is perfectly cast here. She's always been an actress whose teenage looks seem weighted down by an old soul, and she brings through her character's mix of centuries-old pain and adolescent longings with a brooding intensity.
And the film's take on people fighting to fix historical traumas ends up as deceptively complex as Tarantino's own fantasies of historical justice. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that the issue here isn't just about the oppressed casting off their oppressors. It's about the temptation for the powerless to step into the cruel role of the powerful once they are able to, the way that Clara steps into the role of a slightly more compassionate brothel madam. The solution suggested by Jordan goes back to Eleanor's persistent urge to reveal her own story. Progress, here, doesn't come from switching the players, but from revealing all the sordid details of the game — bringing, like Jordan does with his bloodsuckers, something traditionally shrouded in darkness into the light.