Monday, September 30, 2013

Byzantium – review

Director: Neil Jordan

Release date: 2013

Contains spoilers

When I go to the cinema to see a vampire film I am in the habit of recording my first impressions here on the blog – the first impressions for Byzantium are here - but I developed the further habit of not reviewing the DVD, just editing the first impression by adding a score.

As you can see, by dint of the fact that you are reading this, I have decided to look at Byzantium afresh. The First Impression did say much of what I felt about the film but, like all good stories, I enjoyed watching it again even more. That said, this will tread an awful lot of ground that had been tread in the first article.

Saoirse Ronan as Eleanor
Starting with the fact that this is very much a story, Neil Jordan is a storyteller as much as a director and he creates characters within his stories who are storytellers also. In this case our storyteller is Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) and the film begins with her telling her story, writing it on paper that is not intended to be read. Elsewhere Clara (Gemma Arterton) is in a lap dancing club with a client (David Heap) who is getting rough, she manages to bust his nose – earning herself the sack. Eleanor and Clara are the focus of the film, our two vampires or soucriants.

the Soucriant
The name soucriant is a derivative of Soucayant, a vampire type from the island of Trinidad. The film takes the spelling from a mention in Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea. However the name is about all the lore that the film takes from this vampire type. According to Bane (Encyclopedia of Vampire Mythology, 2010) the Soucayant appears as an old woman who sleeps all day, however at night it sheds its skin and ventures forth as a ball of light. Victims will have two small bite marks but the Soucayant is compulsive and if you throw seeds for it, at a crossroads, it will stop and count them and (interestingly) be destroyed by the rising sun. Our Soucriants are not affected by the sun nor do they bite – they grow a long sharp talon-like nail with which to puncture.

the nail
Getting back to Eleanor and Clara, we watch Eleanor connect with an old man who has found pages of her story. He tells her that there comes a time in life when secrets should be told and then explains that the priests used to tell them stories of the neamh-mhairbh – revenants neither alive nor dead. According to Bane, in mythology, these are created by magic. He is tired and it is time; this is how Eleanor feeds, she takes those who are ready, her feeding is an act of mercy (later described as having a certain grace).

Clara kills her captor
Meanwhile a man searching for Clara has found her in the club, she smashes a bottle over his head and runs. He chases her through the night, through stores and over rooftops. Eventually he captures her and makes her take him to the squat where the two women live. Clara manages to trick him and, with cheese wire, takes his head off. When Eleanor gets home Clara makes the girl pack and, burning the flat behind them, they leave.

walking with the past
The town they reach – a dilapidated seaside town is full circle. Clara, who ever faces forward, doesn’t realise it but Eleanor – holder of the story – see the ghosts of her past walking along the beach. This was the beach where Clara (played young by Caroline Johns), as an innocent girl, was approached by two military officers. Darvell (Sam Riley) is kindly, he even gives her a pearl, however she accedes to ride with Ruthven (Jonny Lee Miller, Dracula 2001 and Dark Shadows) who takes her to a brothel and makes her a whore. If you think the names of the officers are familiar then that is because Ruthven (correctly pronounced in film as Riven) is the vampire in Polidori’s The Vampyre and Darvell shares the antagonist’s name from Byron’s Fragment of a Novel, which was the building block for the Vampyre.

Ruthven accompanied Darvell
Now I am missing a lot of the plot out because the joy of the film is that there is so much plot and characterisation. It is also a fault as many aspects could have withstood more scrutiny and the rounded characters and interesting story/lore could have been opened to a wider series of films. What I do need to cover is the turning method. The prospective vampire is given an ornate box that contains a map. The map shows the way to an island (off the coast of Ireland). The passing of the map is almost ritualistic. As such Ruthven has been to the island but is still given the map when he is invited to turn, and perhaps the island is out of reach without the map as having lost the map Ruthven is condemned to a slow agonising death by syphilis.

meeting the nameless saint
The island is almost nothing but a rock jutting out of the sea, the steep climb up the rock leading to a cairn-like structure. The prospective vampire enters the cairn, causing birds to flock out, and meets the thing inside. What is it? We don’t know. It takes the form of the one facing it but perhaps it is an old Celtic God (Darvell suggests that the vampires’ God is older than the Christian God but also calls it the nameless saint). The prospective vampire is attacked and the waterfalls that cascade down the island turn red. The vampire then emerges, dead and then reborn. What is the full meaning of the ritual? What is its source?

Clara steals immortality
Clara steals immortality from Ruthven only to discover that all the soucriants are male and members of an order that call themselves “the pointed nails of justice”. Clara and Eleanor are on the run from the order as Clara took Eleanor (the daughter she gave up when a harlot) to the island after Ruthven raped the girl (revenge against Clara). It is in breach of the misogynistic order’s rules for a woman to create a soucriant. However Eleanor does not know this secret (and is oblivious to the fact that they are hunted) and it is one that must come out for the story to finally be told – something that will allow Eleanor to move forwards rather than look back.

Frank and Eleanor
Impetus for this comes from Frank, an awkward young man who is low on social graces as he has spent his life fighting leukaemia and, due to the anti-coagulants he takes, is a haemophiliac. The scenes between Eleanor and Frank are especially touching due to this awkwardness. She is over two hundred but has never grown due to looking back, he has never had opportunity to grow and thus they complement each other, bringing each other forward. As much as I mention them, however, it has to be said that there isn’t a bad performance in the film.

Sam Riley  as Darvell
The film is steeped in the vampire genre, recognising its roots. It connects the modern – vampire strippers/hookers or the awkward vampire teen haunting colleges – with the old – be that 19th century vampire literature or Hammer, with Dracula, Prince of Darkness playing on a TV, the classic vampire imagery of the blood bath (or shower under a bleeding waterfall) is also done in the most stylish of ways. The storytelling is excellent, though there is almost too much story, as would be expected from a Neil Jordan film. When I gave my first impression I said it was not the best film by Jordan – though even lesser Jordan films are very good. Having rewatched it I have grown to like the film even more and would say it starts off as a great film but then grows on you still further. 8 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.


LoBo said...

Looks good. I will purchase it. i also like Interview with the Vampire.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

hope you enjoy

LoBo said...

I saw it just a few hours ago. I liked it.

Taliesin_ttlg said...