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Film Review: Byzantium

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I think we can all agree that the last thing the film world needs as another tale of mopey, bloodsucking teenagers, but Neil Jordan's latest vampirical tale, Byzantium, is clearly doing everything it can to distance itself from the world of Stephanie Meyer. Based on a play by Tamara Drew writer Moira Buffini, Gemma Arterton stars as the sexy but ruthless Clara, a vampire on the run from a mysterious gang of assailants with her teenage accomplice, Eleanor, played with timid intelligence by Saoirse Ronan. The two find themselves hiding out in a disused guesthouse called Byzantium in a wonderfully dilapidated English coastal resort. Clara transforms the dying hotel into a brothel in order to support herself and Eleanor, now posing as her daughter.

Eleanor, weary of life on the run and hounded by the secrets she must keep, begins to fall for a local boy working as a waiter in the town (Caleb Landry Jones), only to find out that he is suffering from leukaemia. However, as the two become closer, Clara's clandestine past is at risk of becoming exposed.  On top of this, Eleanor is tortured by visions of the town in the 1800's, leading her to think that she may have been here before. The portrayal of the town as a once-thriving, now decaying wasteland is particularly well realised, and provides the perfect backdrop for her struggle with alienation.

Most of the usual vampire traits are dispensed with. Gone are the fangs, garlic, bats and stakes, and our heroines have no problem popping down to the shops at daytime. Instead they puncture their victims' jugulars with creepy thumb nails before sucking them dry. Eleanor, however, is a slightly more contentious predator; only taking sustenance from those who have given their consent. Like a sort of vampirical Dignitas. There are some great moments of shock and B-movie gore and the meandering plot and anachronistic flashback scenes are always intriguing. However, as much as Jordan is trying to subvert the current state of the genre he knows so well, Byzantium is not without its moments of shoe-gazing and angst-ridden contemplation.

Both lead characters are rounded and believable, as you would expect from two actors of Arterton and Ronan's calibre, but the most enjoyable performances come from the supporting cast. Daniel Mays is playfully pitiful as the bereaved hotel owner, besotted by Clara's headstrong beauty, and Tom Hollander is great company as Eleanor's English teacher who is alarmed by her grizzly stories (little does he know that they are mostly autobiographical). Johnny Lee Miller and Sam Riley also impress as the spectres of Clara's past. Miller is particularly repellent and his implacable pursuit of the girls provides a much needed threat.

Byzantium is beautiful shot and gets some great performances out of its well-cast leads, but as much as it tries to avoid the conventions of the genre, it can't help but feeling like another inhabitant of the overpopulated world of moody, teenage Vampire films.

★★★☆☆

Byzantium is released in the UK 31st May