BYZANTIUM (Horror). Starring Gemma Arterton, Saoirse Ronan, Sam Riley, Jonny Lee Miller, Caleb Landry Jones, Daniel Mays, Tom Hollander, Maria Doyle Kennedy. Directed by Neil Jordan. Cert 15A
The supernatural is a strain which has recurred in Neil Jordan's work. With The Company of Wolves, Interview with the Vampire and most recently Ondine (although the less said about High Spirits the better), the director has explored both the otherworldly and interwoven those films with an exploration of the art and nature of storytelling and he's back on familiar ground here.
Scripted by Moira Buffini from her own stage play, Byzantium offers another take on vampire lore and while the notion of one group of vampires pursued by another may sound similar to the latter part of the Twilight saga, what we have here is an altogether different universe to that created by Stephenie Meyer.
Mother and daughter Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) are holed up in a rundown seaside town (a favourite Jordan setting), the former working as a lap dancer and the latter shuffling about with a faraway look in her eyes, writing down details of her life story but casting them to the wind so that no one can read them. When a man arrives intent on killing the pair, Clara beheads him and it soon becomes clear that this is no country for 200-year-old women and they flee, winding up at a similar spot days later.
Through sometimes confusing flashbacks, we discover that Clara was seduced and forced into prostitution in the early 19th century, availing of the opportunity to become a vampire before TB consumed her and turning Eleanor before her life followed a similar path. The kicker here is that, in this take on the undead myth, women aren't allowed to become vampires and so they've been pursued down the centuries by a mysterious 'brotherhood' (try not to laugh when its name is revealed) led by the charismatic Darvell (Sam Riley).
When it comes to feeding off human blood the women's motivations are quite different. Clara enjoys killing, particularly men who've used and abused women – which is hardly surprising given her back story, while Eleanor tends to opt for old and terminally ill people in order to 'release' them.
Moreover, Clara feels threatened that Eleanor's desire to tell her story will prove their undoing, particularly when she becomes involved with Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), a young man suffering from leukaemia.
As you can gather, there's plenty going on in Byzantium, sometimes to its detriment. Jordan, no mean screenwriter himself, has perhaps been too lenient in allowing Buffini to adapt her own work, given that writers tend to want every word and scene they wrote up there on the screen, often at the expense of a coherent narrative.
Byzantium just about makes it over the line intact, due in no small part to some fantastic visual set-pieces (the waterfall of blood is a stunner) and the performances of the leads.
Gemma Arterton is outstanding as Clara, conveying genuine danger and righteous anger as a woman who's been grievously wronged, who now has the means to seek revenge for all time and is determined to do just that. Saoirse Ronan's default mode appears to be a kind of wistful, distant look and that's very much in evidence here but, it has to be said, it works. Her Eleanor doesn't seem enamoured at all by the prospect of being a 16-year-old (in appearance) for ever, in much the same way that Kirsten Dunst's child character in Interview with the Vampire was appalled at the artifice of eternity trapped in that never-growing body.
So, a flawed but frequently engaging film which offers far more food for thought than recent ventures into the world of vampires, Byzantium may be overly complicated but it's still worth a visit. HHHII
THE PURGE Thriller. Starring Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, Adelaide Kane, Max Burkholder, Edwin Hodge, Rhys Wakefield, Terry Oller. Directed by James DeMonaco. Cert 15A
In the opening titles we're presented with a fascinating set-up: that in the year 2022 unemployment in the US is down to 1pc and all crime has been eliminated, with the exception of The Purge, a 12-hour period once a year when all crimes, up to and including murder can be committed without fear of prosecution. So, from the off we have an apparently utopian society which is underpinned by a profoundly dystopian notion. Fine, I'm in.
We're quickly introduced to James Sandin (Ethan Hawke), a successful businessman who specialises in selling security systems to wealthy suburbanites like himself and his family in order that they can sit safely in their homes and watch live TV feeds from around the country as The Purge rages across the States.
For the first third of the film we're gradually drip-fed snippets of information about how America came to this pass, with the country going down the tubes until the 'New Founding Fathers' took control and embarked on a regime of social engineering which allows citizens to kill each other one night a year. And guess which stratum of society gets to suffer the most?
In his debut feature, director James DeMonaco keeps things on a tight rein for the first half of the film, with James and his wife (Lena Headey) looking after their teenage daughter (Adelaide Kane) and younger son (Max Burkholder) until the latter allows a hunted homeless man (Edwin Hodge) inside after lockdown and their problems begin.
Alas, that's where the movie's problems kick in, too, as what had up until then been an interesting thriller with a sci-fi twist turns into a standard home-invasion movie once the homeless man's pursuers arrive looking for him. There are still some interesting ideas posited about how social inequality could pan out in a worst-case scenario but all subtlety is lost in the final third. A pity. HHIII
ALSO RELEASED THIS WEEK ...
The Big Wedding, a re-make of the 2006 French farce My Brother is Getting Married, boasts a cast that includes Oscar winners Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton and Susan Sarandon but wasn't given a press screening. Draw your own conclusions.
On a jollier note, the long-awaited Before Midnight opens on June 21 and to prepare for the final time we meet Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), the IFI is screening Before Sunrise and Before Sunset over the course of the next few days.
Lovely, lovely films.