Without much fanfare comes another movie about teenage vampires living among mortals, falling in love and hiding secrets about their past.
Yet Byzantium makes clear that it’s not another entry in the Twilight series, but rather a dark tale of family secrecy from veteran Irish director Neil Jordan (Interview With the Vampire) that establishes a creepy atmosphere with a script that renders this vampire saga rather toothless.
The story takes place in a contemporary seaside town in Ireland, where Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) generally try to avoid the spotlight. They mingle with the locals, who are oblivious that the young sisters are in reality 200-year-old bloodsuckers.
Clara makes a living as a prostitute, while Eleanor is an aspiring writer who befriends a teenage loner (Caleb Landry Jones) battling a mysterious illness. Both women are trying to escape the past, but as other men enter their lives, it threatens to expose their immortal secret and tear the family apart.
Byzantium is a lower budget effort for Jordan than his lavish adaptation of the Anne Rice novel almost two decades ago. While he demonstrates some visual flair and his technical collaborators are first-rate, the muddled screenplay – adapted by Moira Buffini (Tamara Drewe) from her own stage play – doesn’t seem to translate well to the big screen.
The deliberately paced film bogs down in heavy-handed narration and its flashbacks become tedious and repetitive. As a result, the characters remain emotionally distant, even as their family history becomes more clear.
That’s a shame, because these aren’t your average cinematic vampires played for high comedy or cheap frights. Rather, they are fleshed-out (pun intended) characters with complex morals and motives.
Strong performances by a talented ensemble of rising stars helps to lend some depth to a story that relies on familiar themes. In the case of Arterton (Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters) and Ronan (Atonement), their troubled characters exhibit plenty of angst, although their emotions remain mostly internalized.
Byzantium is intended more for devotees of the vampire genre than for mainstream consumption. With its share of haunting imagery, it’s sporadically unsettling but never truly frightening.
Rated R, 118 minutes.