I recently discovered a theory called the Bechdal Test, which states that films lean predominantly towards males. To pass this test a film must have at least two female characters who interact and in doing so must converse about something other than a man. So, if you have had enough of the male-centric blockbusters currently on offer, then go watch Byzantium. And if passing the Bechdal test isn’t enough, it’s also quite good.
Elena Webb (Saoirse Ronan) and Clara (Gemma Arterton) are a pair of vampires that live in present day England. They have to maintain their sanguineous habits but also keep a low profile. While staying at the Byzantium hotel they struggle to survive in the real world, all the while being chased by a group of mysterious men.
Director Neil Jordan returns to ideas of immortality and eternal youth once more, and unlike Interview with the Vampire, he hasn’t got Tom Cruise camping it up to save the film. Thankfully however, he has accrued a talented cast who turn in strong performances. Ronan gives a rather plain character a soul (figuratively); her eyes express a great sense of maturity, one beyond her years. Alongside her is the able-bodied (in many ways) Arterton, who reminds us once again that she is more than just a sex symbol by giving an impassioned performance, one that displays great affection for her child.
For those who are seeking sparkling vampires or even inexplicable kung-fu vampires (which is all of us, right?), then prepare to be disappointed. This isn’t a film overflowing with fight scenes or explosions, rather it is a more personable and intimate character study of the nature of family and the lengths people are prepared to go to as a way of protecting that family, giving Byzantium a strong moral centre, despite the length of time it takes to get there.
Byzantium does not only tackle ideas of family, it also addresses the ephemeral nature of life, and how it should be appreciated. An admirable trait as it is, the subject is tackled in such a way that it seems a little basic, as if there is a more significant observation to come. And that is a problem found throughout, it just doesn’t offer up any new ideas.
As a whole it is well executed, there is some fine imagery to be found, and Jordan’s direction is unobtrusive to the actors, but it all seems a little hollow. Much like Interview with the Vampire, Jordan subverts our ideas of vampires and the mythologies that we are accustomed to. But where these false notions came from, or why some of the standard characteristics (immolation via sunlight) have no effect, when others (permission to enter houses) do, is never really explained, which proves a little frustrating, but these qualms are largely minor.
Overall Byzantium is a rather sombre affair, with little humour or even any legitimate tension to be found. However, it is an enjoyable experience that benefits from Jordan’s steady hand with a familiar subject matter, and strong performances from the cast, ranging from its leads to the support (special mention for Jonny Lee Miller who does well for what was a rather brief role). Jordan once again manages to challenge our ideas of adolescence and femininity in an enjoyable way.