Film of the Week: Byzantium (15A, limited release, 118 minutes) **
Director: Neil Jordan Stars: Gemma Arterton, Saoirse Ronan, Sam Riley, Johnny Lee Miller
It would be nice, some time, to watch a horror film in which vampirism wasn't a metaphor for sex, death or human venality. Meanwhile we have Byzantium, Neil Jordan's dour and heavy-handed gothic chiller which glumly trades in all the tried-and-tested tropes of vampire symbolism and adds a few new metaphors of its own.
Sexism among the bloodsuckers, for instance, is a potentially interesting take on a tired and overworked genre. But this and several other potentially promising ideas get lost in a film that never quite achieves enough forward momentum.
Byzantium does at least boast a spirited and energetic performance from Gemma Arterton, who plays a tough and resourceful female vampire. Clara is a single mother with a teenage daughter called Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), whom she supports by working as a prostitute. Clara works in lap dancing clubs and sometimes on the streets, but every now and then she and her daughter have to move when too many punters start going missing. Clara sucks blood without compunction, but her daughter is one of those drippy types that seem to have a conscience.
She tries to restrict herself to sucking the blood of the sick and elderly, of people who are ready to die. But when she and her mother relocate to a small seaside town, Eleanor meets someone who forces her to reexamine her attitude.
Clara and Eleanor are on the run from a sinister organisation called the Brotherhood, a kind of vampire police intent on upholding the law that neck-biting is for men only. Clara's been a vampire since the early 19th century, when she found out she was dying of tuberculosis and persuaded a passing bloodsucker to change her.
She embraces her needs pragmatically, but Eleanor agonises over their victims.
When Clara meets a lonely man on the seafront and is taken back to his home in an abandoned hotel, she decides to turn it into a high-class brothel, and soon business is booming. Eleanor, meanwhile, has an encounter of a very different kind when she forms an attachment to frail-looking hotel waiter called Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), who has leukemia and may not last much longer. But as Clara rakes in the cash and Eleanor falls in love, three angry gentlemen from the Brotherhood are surveying their every move.
There are some original touches to Jordan's film, which was made for less than $10m and as a consequence had to take it handy on the special effects. Instead of flying about the place and pouncing from a height on their victims' carotids, Clara and Eleanor draw blood by using their thumbnails, throbbing and constantly changing little entities that grow long in anticipation of both blood and sex. It's a good idea, and so is the notion of Gemma as an embattled feminist, but the story's potential gets lost in a wordy script and a film that lacks narrative drive, and focus.
This is Jordan's first visit with the undead since his 1994 hit Interview with the Vampire.
Byzantium has none of that film's camp humour and insists we take it dreadfully seriously.
It's not always easy, and the apparent presentation of Clara's prostitution as an empowering life choice is troubling.
Arterton is the best thing in a film that might have benefited from a bigger budget, but Ronan's role doesn't really stretch her enough, and Jones is an interesting young actor who hasn't yet discovered that when it comes to big screen performing, less is most definitely more.