With Byzantium Neil Jordan weaves a tapestry of vampire lore that is breathtakingly beautiful, darkly haunting, and surprisingly touching. The film focuses on the unending lives of mother and daughter vampires, Clara and Eleanor. Clara is a seductress, using her sexuality to make her unending way in the world, and daughter Eleanor is weary of her mother’s lifestyle. By flashing back and forth through time, we not only learn the tragic story of Clara and Eleanor’s origins, but also get a sense of the slow grinding nature of endless time, and how it wears on these eternal souls.
The vampire origins in Byzantium are unique, and regulated by an overseeing vampire brotherhood. The vampires in the world of Byzantium have very specific codes they live by as far as secrecy and who is allowed to “live” as a vampire. For example, women are forbidden to share the secret of the creation of the undead life. In this patriarchal vampire society, Clara is an anomaly, and eventually a target for the brotherhood as she has broken their code by “creating” Eleanor. Clara constantly keeps Eleanor on the move without explaining the true reason–running from the brotherhood.
There is a pervasive melancholy throughout Byzantium. Eleanor is unable to reconcile her past, and yet it fully shapes the being that she is. This is the films greatest theme, that you cannot escape your past. For as much as Clara imposes on Eleanor to look forward and leave the past behind them, Eleanor is unable to do so. Constantly attempting to write and share her story, Eleanor is consumed by her past. She soon meets Frank, a sickly young man in college and the two share an attraction that Eleanor struggles against. However when they both take a writing class together, Eleanor finally take the chance to share her story, an act that moves the film towards its final confrontations. It is also an act that leads Eleanor towards some sort of reconciliation; an understanding of her past and its influence on her and a casting off of the shackles it has around her. After all, what is a life not shared?
If I am being somewhat vague on details with the plot, it is because I want to leave the film its chance to cast a spell over you. Byzantium is not a briskly paced film, but it burrows into you, enthralling you with lush imagery, fascinating characters, rich lore, and unexpected emotions. There are moments of violence and gore, but they are sprinkled throughout and are not the focus here. At times I felt as though I were watching a vampiric twist to Les Miserables, other times a Noir crime film, and still others a European horror film. But the tone is never uneven, the threads all weave together, and in the end Eleanor sees she may not be as different from her mother as she believed. Byzantium is not to be missed.