Compelled to remember, compelled to write and compelled to throw the pages away, the apparently 16-year-old Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) lives in a beat-up public housing tower in London. She tosses the crumpled pages of her journal into the courtyard: "Maybe the birds will read them."
Her young mother, Clara (Gemma Arterton), gets into a scuffle at the strip club where she works, and this leads to a graphic homicide. Director Neil Jordan demonstrates early on that there will be blood in his film Byzantium. The two women, fugitives, relocate to a peeling seaside resort, where Clara starts up her usual trade in sex work, with a twist. Eleanor remembers, to her shock, that she's been in this gloomy coastal town before. Two centuries before.
The two get some free shelter: Clara picks up a trick named Noel (played by Daniel Mays, who was the can-do son in Vera Drake). He's a soft-bellied weeper with a thick five o'clock shadow. Noel's mother has just died, but he's inherited a trashed, abandoned hotel. Clara determines to make new use for the Victorian building. Mysterious enforcers track the two ladies down. A last complication—Eleanor meets a pale, sad American boy named Frank (Caleb Landry Jones)—all long red hair and murmurs, he is. He becomes Eleanor's very first confidant.
Byzantium is based on a play by Moira Buffini titled A Vampire Story. In the original, it was possible Eleanor's story was just a young troubled girl's delusion. Still, Buffini's title makes blunt what Jordan makes smooth: the early reveal that these two immortals live off of blood. They harvest it with the help of a supernatural trick—a thumbnail that grows into a lancet. The Gothic past and the rancid present are knitted by a tune called "The Orphan's Song" but better known as the Coventry Carol. Jordan watches the action with slow, repeated pans over the seaside, under the so-called daylight of the off-season. This has-been resort has two piers, one burnt and derelict, the other with a stiff, cold and too-quiet cafe, where Frank works.
This extremely elegant fantasy has roots in a plausible situation: maybe vampires don't exist, but there has been a child or two raised by a wolf, or a drinker, or a drugger, or someone who uses them in bed. Eleanor's problem is a common one—how do such children get their experience into words, get past the shame? Who will believe them?
But there's a less believable conspiracy backstory, no matter how beautifully visualized it is in a misty hidden island that gushes red cataracts, or with a villain (Jonny Lee Miller) from King George IV's day, so poxed by syphilis that it looks like he's encrusted with barnacles.
Clara never comes to life for us the way Eleanor does; the film seems shaped to appeal to the young-adult audience that believes that adults are basically sordid. Clara knocks her victims over, rapes them really. There's no pleasure in her hunts or her manipulations of men, as if it would be downgrading her tragedy to find some fun there. The prostitute's life may be all about powerlessness, yet to daydreamers, it's a powerful fantasy. What Clara does is considered fair turnabout. Byzantium maybe has some kinship with the kind of movie that argues that those who hire whores deserve to die.
Ronan is, naturally, the standout. She's fresh but warped, a debauched Vermeer, the luminous belladonna-pupilled gaze searching out the humans, looking for belief. It's a strange, gorgeous performance.
Count on Jordan (Interview With the Vampire) to find a new angle for an overworked genre; evidence of the freshness is that we have a word for "siring" a vampire, but none for a woman initiating one. Damming? Byzantium is a full-throated feminist movie, and that's laudable; maybe an open ending would have served the story better than a happy one, but that again may be the young-adult prejudices catered to in an otherwise bizarre and fascinating tale.