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Review: ‘Byzantium’

Neil Jordan Gives A Transfusion To Vampire Genre

Above: Saoirse Ronan plays Elanor in Neil Jordan's "Byzantium."

Aired 6/28/13 on KPBS News.

Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan has a flair for spinning contemporary fairy tales inspired by things like werewolves and mermaids. For his latest film, "Byzantium" (opening June 28 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinema), he returns to vampires.

Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan has a flair for spinning contemporary fairy tales inspired by things like werewolves and mermaids. For his latest film, "Byzantium," which opened June 28 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinema, he returns to vampires.

Back in 1994, Neil Jordan tackled Anne Rice’s “Interview with a Vampire.” The film was marred by a miscast Tom Cruise. Now Jordan takes a very different tact on bloodsucking creatures with a tale of a mother and her young daughter, Eleanor.

Eleanor opens the film with this narration: "My story can never be told, I write it over and over, whenever we find shelter. I write of what I cannot speak – the truth."

The truth is Eleanor and her mother need blood to survive. Technically, though, they’re not vampires since they can walk in daylight and have a lethal nail rather than fangs to open veins. While mom embraces her carnal and carnivorous desires, Eleanor struggles with her needs. Her solution- find willing victims like this elderly neighbor.

The old man invites Eleanor into his home after finding pages of her journal strewn out on the street. He tells her, "There was a story told when I was a boy, about sucreants, neither dead nor alive. The priests used to tell it to us to frighten us." He searches her face to see if she understands and then he adds, "I am ready."

These are the only people that Eleanor will feed on, people who welcome death. She and her mother Clara (Gemma Arterton) are opposites. But Clara offers Eleanor the kind of protection she needs especially since the bloodsucking community isn't too fond of female vamps who break the rules and assert their independence.

Leave it to Jordan to give a much-needed transfusion to the vampire genre after the anemic “Twilight” series nearly killed it. "Byzantium" may not be Jordan’s best but it’s smartly scripted (weaving past and present stories together), gorgeously shot, and Saoirse Ronan as Eleanor is mesmerizing to watch. In films like "The Company of Wolves" and the recent "Ondine," Jordan was able to innovate familiar elements with more flair. "Byzantium" holds your attention and refreshes some aspects of the vampire film but it's not kicked up to 11 as Jordan usually does.

And although he uses a troubled teen girl discovering love, Jordan does not fall into any of the soap opera of "Twilight." He also -- mercifully -- gives us bloodsuckers who can be savage rather than sparkle sensitively in the forest. Thank god for that. Clara can be ruthless and violent because her maternal extinct to protect her young is often provoked. In the end, though, as with many of Jordan's films, the film proves to be about love, flawed individuals, and the things that make us all too human.

"Byzantium" is rated R for or bloody violence, sexual content and language.

Companion viewing: "The Company of Wolves," "Ondine," "Kiss of the Damned"

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