The View from the Trailer Park – 20/20: Neil Jordan’s ‘Byzantium’
Written by: Daniel McDonald
I am still waiting for some horror in the local cinemas (and no, I don’t count “horrible movies”, which have included SHUT IN, THE BYE BYE MAN, and God help me MONSTER TRUCKS) I have it on solid word of mouth that SPLIT is Shyamalan’s return to form (which I’m also accepting as a cinematic apology) with an absolutely OSCAR worthy performance from James McAvoy.
Perhaps the 2017 Horror season has been given a kick-start by a “back on track” auteur.
Until then, I’ll continue to wander through the vast amount of underrated or overlooked films that perhaps deserve another go ’round. I was “out of commission” cinema wise from 2011-2015, and I’m finding plenty of treasures among the trash, especially in 2012-2014. Last night a name on YouTube caught my eye, and opened a door to a flood of cinema gold memories in several genres, courtesy of Neil Jordan.
An Irish born writer/director who first came to my attention with his 1984 Fairy tale/Horror (in my humble opinion) masterpiece THE COMPANY OF WOLVES. Coming on the heels of a few other W.W. films, with a less than enticing promotional campaign, this curiosity drew me in because of my obsessive love of that particular genre. Lon Chaney Jr’s galvanizing performance as Larry Talbot in Universal’s 1941 classic (and easily one of my top 5 favorite films) THE WOLF MAN, which was this 6 year old’s first Horror film, viewed from the safety of my mother’s lap in 1963.
The idea of intermingling a fairy tale and honest to God monster movie seemed a bit odd, even daunting project. From the first few moments the lavishly detailed production design, solid lead performances, wonderful (for their time) make up and FX and inescapable air of stunningly evocative, unmistakable sexuality, took me back to the glorious days of my beloved Hammer Films.
I went back to that theater three consecutive days, sometimes sitting through it twice (ahhh the good ole’ days) and each time became more passionate, not just about another good W.W. movie, but about the incredibly seductive visuals. It seemed as if this Jordan fellow had a remarkably on point vision of the way this Horror fable should look and feel. Little did I know, overseas Jordan had become an award winning writer of novels as well as screenplays.
I kept an eye out for other projects through the years and no matter the topic, found his style as a visual story teller impressed me time and time again. Jordan’s was a career that reminded me a great deal of my favorite American director, Brian DePalma. Sometimes critically applauded, other times met with a nastier than usual backlash (failed expectations?) but each time hailed for its atmospheric, visually striking look and feel. Probably best known for his OSCAR winning screenplay (he wrote or co-wrote most of his projects) for THE CRYING GAME, for which he was also nominated as Best Director as he was around the world in several awards events.
So seeing this 2012 horror film, BYZANTIUM which I knew had been a play and was adapted by its author Moira Buffini for the screen, was directed by Jordan (who had done quite well by Anne Rice’s INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE) and had the wonderful good fortune of having its lead played by Saorsie Ronan who has given multiple award nominated performances, most recently in the multi-nominated BROOKLYN. This was more than enough to help me decide to catch up on a missed cinematic opportunity.
Immediately I was reminded of Jordan’s mastery of finding fascinating sometimes gorgeous imagery to help tell what turns out to be a mixture of INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE and the best from the Hammer vaults. The not always easy to follow screenplay (one wonders if Jordan had written it himself, would the confusion no longer be an issue) jumps from 200 years ago and present day examining the relationship between 16 year old Eleanor (Ronan) and her mother Clara (a very good Gemma Arterton). In the past it is revealed that both are Vampires existing on human blood (a unique draining method is used effectively). They are both being hunted by male members of a clan called the Brethren, desperate to know how two women have discovered their secret to everlasting life.
There is a feminist sensibility throughout the film that, along with sensitive direction and performances, exists but doesn’t permeate the story.
We jump 200 years ahead to present day, where Clara has fallen ill with tuberculosis, and survives as a prostitute. Meanwhile Eleanor, a brilliant pianist, plays as an entertainer in a restaurant, where waiter Frank (boy band beautiful and sensitive actor Caleb Landry Jones) falls in love with her. She explains that the story she is always seen writing is her life story and promises to let him read it “when he’s ready.” She doesn’t know he is slowly succumbing to leukemia. She joins the college where Frank attends and they share a writing class. Clara has seduced her way into the life of Joel, a lonely man whose mother has died and left him a failing hotel called Byzantium. Clara convinces Joel to create a boarding house/bordello where she continues her “business.” As Clara reveals her transition to undead, in a sequence ABSOLUTELY stunning and so indicative of Jordan’s superbly unique vision, she reveals how she outsmarted the members of the Brethren (who are now on the hunt for Eleanor and herself in present day) to become a member of the clan that wants she and her daughter dead. At the same time Eleanor gives Frank (who she truly loves) her story, which he shares with their teacher.
Several incidents occur leading to a violent confrontation at Byzantium, and what is a surprisingly emotional and unexpected finale. This reads more confusingly than it plays. There are sequences of humor (at one point they watch a Hammer Vampire film on TV) and very tender romance (Ronan and Jones are wonderful as “damaged” young lovers). As with every Jordan film, the tech-Cinematography by Sean Bobbit, Editing by Tony Lawson and brilliant Set design by Simon Elliot art direction by Bill Crutcher. Breathtaking costumes by Consolata Boyle and a perfectly Hammer-like melodramatic score from Javier Navarette is all A-list wonderful.
On what was (I’m very sure) a solid to large budget, even though the film was nominated for or won several international awards, I can only imagine it was difficult to find the niche audience for it, and it failed badly to make profits. I still think anyone who enjoyed any or all HAMMER HORROR films, or an original take on a timeworn topic, BYZANTIUM will be a delightful 100 minute experience……I’m just saying…
Can not wait to see this movie. It is now on my list!!
it really is a beautiful film. It also has one of my favorite decapitation scenes in it.