This is the most recent movie by Neil Jordan, famed for The Crying Game and Interview with the Vampire, which also featured a young girl vampire feeling hemmed in by her parental figures and yearning to breathe free. I like it when Jordan gets all lush and violent and dark, and even though this film receives divided reviews--some love it while many think it's a total snooze--I'm fairly interested in anything Jordan is going to come up with. Even if it ends up being In Dreams.
This is based on a play written by Moira Buffini, who also wrote this screenplay. Saoirse Ronan plays Eleanor, latchkey vampire who sulks at home while mom's out stripping to pay the bills. She writes her story over and over, then throws each page to the wind, a smarmy literary conceit. You can imagine how much she'd accomplish if she took up macramé. We see her meeting an old man who has collected her scraps of paper, and sucking his blood because he is ready to die. Eleanor only kills those who are ready to die, which means the sick and elderly. Meanwhile Mom Clara, played by Gemma Atherton, is escaping a strip club from a man looking for her, leading to a chase. She ends up at home with the guy, handily decapitates him, then torches the whole place. Eleanor is annoyed at having to move again.
They go to some fabulously desolate seaside town where Clara starts trying to pick up guys at the local fair, ending up with one whose deceased mother willed him a decaying hotel, Byzantium. They stay there, and soon Eleanor meets Frank, local depressed teen with Leukemia. Second among her smarmy attention-getting strategies is to wander into old folks' homes and start playing morbid music on the piano, then vanishing when anyone wants to hear more. Frank pursues her and wants to be her friend but she can't--She Can't! Because everything is SO traumatic and complicated for HER! Meanwhile Mom is setting up a whorehouse in the guys' hotel, and some mysterious cops are on Mom's trail. Who are these mysterious cops? WHO!?!?
So as it would hap, this seaside town is where Eleanor and Clara grew up, 200 years prior, Clara was just a fresh young lass with the blush of virtue on her cheek when she was approached by Gareth, who gave her a pearl that she keeps to this day, but he was cock-blocked by his boss, Jonny Lee Miller [JLM], who took Clara, schtupped her, and installed her in a whorehouse. He has this thing about turning women into whores. He also has Syphilis, which he gifts Clara with as well. I'm sure you'll see that Miller's work in Dracula 2000 made him a natural fit for this role. Anyway, Mom had Eleanor, and dropped her on the step of the orphanage, which has now turned into the very school in which Eleanor and Frank take classes in personal discovery.
So the movie, around this point, is just meandering, focusing on this relationship here, this tidbit from the past there, Mom and Eleanor's tension over there, and I must say that the middle of the film stretched out into tedium for me, although once things snap back at the end, I was glad to have taken all this time to provide resonance and history to what happens then. If I was watching at home, I probably would have turned it off at this point, but if you are watching, just know that matters are going to pick up near the end and you'll be glad to have cemented all this history.
SPOILERS > > >
So it would seem that in this world, the way to become a vampire is that you're sick, and a member of "the brotherhood" comes to you with a map to a secret island, and you go there and find a hut, and inside the hut you find a hot steaming pizza with all your favorite toppings. This was the origin of the "Pizza Hut." No, actually you find the Batcave. Not really, but you DO stand there while black birds swirl all around you and give you the whole Batman Begins treatment. Then you meet YOURSELF, and kill yourself (although why not have a little make-out first? You know you've thought about it), and the one who emerges is undead. Instead of popping champagne corks, this is celebrated by the waterfall on the island running red with blood (or Crystal Light Tropical Blend, can't tell which), an image that Jordan might have included fewer times for greater impact.
So get this. Gareth goes into the hut, and JLM thinks he's dead, so he steals all his rings, appropriates all his money, and goes back to continue his life of waste, a bit richer. But Gareth comes back for him, and is a trifle upset, and by that time Clara is sick with the syphillis that JLM gave her. The brotherhood is going to give JLM the map because he is ill, but Clara swipes it! And she goes to the island and gets all vampiric. Then, after JLM (who is just a bad, bad guy) rapes Eleanor and gives her the syph, Clara takes her out to the island and pops her into the vampa-hut. And they've been living like that ever since, with Mom always being a prostitute and never, in all her 200 years, getting some vocational retraining. This gave Eleanor lots of time to perfect her sullen sulking and discontented sighs.
Meanwhile, in the present day, Eleanor has decided to reach out and trust, so she gives Frank one of the written-out versions of her story. He reads it and gives it to his teacher. The teacher shares it with another teacher, and soon they're all poking into Eleanor's business, places in which they should not poke. They end up getting poked back. Then: Shitstorm! Here's where the pace picks up and everything starts getting really good.
Mom's not too happy that Eleanor blabbed their story to that little Leukematic prick. She locks Eleanor in an elevator and pops on over to pay the lad a visit, but not before Eleanor has announced that she's leaving Mom and running away with the little skinny douchester. Then, who should show up but the guys that have been trailing Clara, and we realize--one of them is Gareth, from the 18th century! It would seem that women are simply not allowed to be vampires (it's called a brotherhood, yo), and it's even worse if you have stolen the power. Anyway, here's where things start getting good, so I'm not going to spoil any more!
< < < SPOILERS END
So as it was going it was meandering, with numerous elements that could be said to dip a toe into the precious, and I'll admit that many an eye was rolled during the middle section. I did get a detailed look at my theater's ceiling. But once it started coming back together at the end, I was really glad for all the detail and history it had gone into, because it gave additional resonance to the story as it ended. It also has a fair amount of ambiguities and loose ends that only make it stronger--like why, after all this time, Mom hasn't tried her skills in another profession. She's had 200 years, you know? That's a lot of time to learn Excel.
The story also successfully has a feminist bent which comes to the fore in the idea that women are not allowed to be vampires, and making a good metaphor out of Mom finding her power by stealing it, which draws attention to her wish to dominate her daughter and the ways her life has been bent into shape by men. It does so by just bringing up a lot of material but not hammering home interpretations, and without blaming men for ruining everything. It is also, as is common with Jordan, visually lush and full of evocative images that soak up all the rich thematic content. And again, I can't stress enough how the ending takes advantage of and brings meaning to the vast accumulation of detail the meandering film has built up. If you watch it on demand, be sure you make it to the end!
The fact that this is only in a few tiny theaters in New York and L.A. and available primarily on demand is further evidence of the changing film environment, and how within a few years, mid-sized movies like this won't be able to be made at all. This one opened with logos from SIX financing companies, which it considerately placed on the same screen. And look, the new Neil Jordan movie can barely get a release in theaters. Ditto the upcoming new Brian De Palma film, which will be available on demand a month before its cursory showing in a few theaters. I would ask what the world is coming to, but I think we all have a pretty good idea what the world is coming to. Say bye-bye Byzantium, hello Iron Man 3,163.
Yeah, and don't get discouraged when it meanders for a good long while in the middle.