To be clear, this isn't an action movie or a gorefest. This is a heavy drama with serious themes and fully developed characters. It's slow and quiet and occasionally too understated, but it is also beautiful and compelling. Led by Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan, this is a story about people who just happen to be two hundred year old vampires.
At the start of the film we meet Clara (Arterton) and her daughter Eleanor (Ronan) fleeing from some kind of organized group of vampires because of a crime they committed at some point in their long past. It isn't entirely clear what their crime is at first, and when those answers come they are kind of strange and not fully explained. Still, the plot did frame the main character's situation very well, and let all the players interact in such a way that the story took a background place to the characters.
This allowed us to see the sordid story of Clara, who is a very troubled soul. She is a murderous, opportunistic whore (literally) who doesn't seem to have many redeeming values, and yet you can feel for her and sympathize with her even if she isn't very likeable. Eleanor is far more sympathetic; she is haunted, and sad, and desperately alone. Somehow these two very flawed and kind of monstrous people are developed in such a way that I was rooting for them by the end, even though I was sure they were going to die.
A good portion of that relatability comes from the script and directing, both of which were very well done. But credit has to be given to both lead actresses who gave memorable performances. Their presence demanded the attention of the audience whenever they were on screen. Ronan in particular was luminous, and her impossible eyes conveyed so much emotion in a single glance. Arterton was equally as good, but a lot louder and far less subtle.
The supporting actors were also good. Most of these characters were simply there to facilitate the plot, but they all had just the right level of either sympathy or malice to make me like or hate them. I won't go into detail, but I was impressed by how they had relatable motivations (except for the evil group hunting our heroines because their reasons were a touch nonsensical and very misogynistic). I just wish the 'bad guys' were a bit more developed. There was definitely a lack of explanation surrounding their goals. Still, I'm not sure those explanations were really needed, since the story was focused from the point of view of Eleanor, who had been kept in the dark and sheltered from the vampire world for the most part.
Finally, I should probably discuss the themes. Like most vampire movies, the overall theme was weighted equally between sexuality and death, with Clara representing the sexual aspect of vampirism, and Eleanor representing the themes of death and the endless time that comes with immortality. It's interesting that Eleanor is always looking to the past, whereas Clara is always in the moment. It was a fascinating duality that covered all the required elements needed in a serious vampire movie, but they were done in a slightly new way. The vampire mythos and rules were also a bit different from the traditional stuff, although I think those new rules might be the least successful aspect of the film.
Byzantium is a very serious, occasionally romantic, and more than a little bloody vampire story that didn't hold back. Unfortunately, it is not in wide release, so it may be difficult to find at your local theater. If you can find it, though, I strongly recommend it.
3 1/2 out of 4 Waterfalls of blood.
J.D. Balthazar is a confirmed nerd who loves most things sci-fi or fantasy-related. He reviews Arrow and Farscape and cool new movies that strike his fancy.