Neil Jordan is that rare director who’s comfortable with the fantastical, yet has never fallen into a genre-hack trap. So it’s disappointing that “Byzantium,” his first wade into vampire terrain since 1994’s starry “Interview With the Vampire,” should prove a lethargic and uninspired take that aims to be something different, but ultimately isn’t. Lacking the requisite scares, and blood, that entice gorehounds, this handsome, femme-driven Irish-Brit co-production is likely to fall between mainstream and arthouse categories among the several territories in which it has sold (excluding North America); better returns await in ancillary.
First seen lap-dancing at a strip club, Clara (Gemma Arterton) gets fired for clobbering an abusive customer, but soon has more urgent worries, as she’s chased by an apparent longtime foe (“Keep the Lights On’s” Thule Lindhardt). The violent ending to that episode means she and “little sister” Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) must flee again, this time landing in a seaside town where Eleanor begins recalling their distant shared past.
Both are actually very old young women — twentysomething Clara is in fact mother to permanently 16-year-old Elly, each preserved at the age they became vampires more than two centuries earlier, the result of peasant-turned-prostitute Clara’s entanglements with two Royal Navy officers (Sam Riley, Jonny Lee Miller). These events are seen in flashback as, in present day, Clara sets up a bordello in the dilapidated old hotel owned by a lonely sad-sack (Daniel Mays).
This leaves Elly free to act like a (depressed) teenager, when not playing angel of death for terminally ill patients and others ready to quit life. She meets Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), a leukemia-sick youth who senses a kindred mournful soul, and together they take a writing class. Assigned to tell a personal story, Eleanor spills out her real history, which of course everyone, including concerned school officials, assumes is purest fiction, or perhaps delusion. But the disclosure gets her in hot water all the same, as agents of the bloodsucking Brotherhood catch up with the mother-daughter pair.
It’s impossible to detect any remaining theatrical roots in Moira Buffini’s adaptation of her play, but what might have been highly offbeat stage material seems like the usual silly genre mythology here; this version of the undead drains blood not via fangs, but by long thumb talons, with the vampires claiming to represent “the pointed nails of justice” over millennia.
The Brotherhood’s unreconstructed misogyny and classism could have been mined for humor, but “Byzantium” takes itself awfully seriously. It gestures toward, without building the kind of mystique and tragic grandeur of, upscale screen vampire tales like “Interview” or “The Hunger.” Nor does it offer much in the way of plain old frights and gore, so rank-and-file horror fans will likely find it a pretentious slog.
Thesps are OK, but despite their roles’ surface novelty, there really isn’t much for them to play. Arterton does goodhearted-sexy-tart, Ronan stares meaningfully into space, Jones rather overdoes the geek thing, Riley broods, Miller scowls.
As usual for a Jordan film, the presentation is attractive, with good use of English/Irish locations and expert design elements all handsomely captured in Sean Bobbitt’s sleek lensing. But in look and overall impact, this is one of this director’s less distinctive projects, more in line with the competently executed but routine likes of “In Dreams” and “The Brave One” than his better work.