Starring Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, Warren Brown, Daniel Mays, Caleb Landry Jones, Johnnie Lee Miller, and Sam Riley
Written by Moira Buffini
Directed by Neil Jordan
There is a moment 20 minutes into Byzantium where a waterfall on an unnamed island begins to flow red, presumably with blood. There really isn’t an explanation for this oddity or how it pertains to the scene or the film itself. There it is, the waterfall running with blood. After thinking about this for a while, I’ve drawn the conclusion that this was meant to symbolize the transition from human to vampire, but I’m still unsure and can’t really tell if it mattered. Sadly, this was the case with Byzantium, the most truest case of style over substance I’ve seen in some time. It’s not to say that overall Byzantium is a bad film by any means. I’m sure that fans of vampire mythology or of the directors past films will find things to enjoy. There’s also something to be said about the look, sound, and performances found within, but in the end this is another tedious outing from a director who is in dire need of better stories.
Byzantium is yet another reinterpretation of the vampire and follows the exploits of two sisters, older Clara (Gemma Arterton) and younger Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), who as we come to learn are in fact vampires, but not your normal vampires. These vampires have no fangs or superhuman strength and are unaffected by sunlight. Instead they have a rather large protruding thumbnail that is used to pierce the skin to allow them to feed. In fact, take away the whole immortality curse and all, and you might have trouble telling the difference between these vampires and a few girls experimenting with bath salts. The problem right off the bat is that these changes in the mythology of vampirism take away the most appealing characteristics and at the same time immediately polarize the audience – all within the first five minutes.
As we begin, Eleanor is writing her life story and throwing away the transcript, a ritual she seems to partake in quite regularly. Clara is working as an exotic dancer at a local gentlemen’s club and facing the normal issues one in her line of work would. What is different this night is she’s confronted by a stranger to the audience but certainly not to her: a fellow vampire who is seeking out her sister Eleanor. A chase ensues, ending back at the sister’s place of residence and it becomes clear they must flee the town and continue to move.
Clara is beautiful and sexually charged which makes it easier to take care of her sister and herself. This path leads her to Noel (Daniel Mays), a grieving man whose mother has passed and left him with the family business, a worn down guest house which shares the title of the film. It is here that the sisters take up residence and try to start anew. Soon after Eleanor meets Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), a strange boy working at a residency she has visited, and the two slowly develop a friendship. Eleanor is torn between her secretive lifestyle and her longing to break free of the loneliness that comes with living in isolation. It is these feelings that dictate the last two acts of the film as her honesty with humans allows the vampires in chase to locate her and Clara.
The vampires in Byzantium are revealed to be a brotherhood of men who don’t take too kindly to having their ritualistic and apparently quite sexist approach to choosing their brethren tampered with by the hands of a female. This is a boys club as it would seem, and obviously things are wrong as our two leads are females. The film is essentially a chase story, filled with lots and lots of exposition and dreams as we slowly learn the true nature of Clara and Eleanor’s relationship.
Again, there are many things to enjoy in Byzantium. The performances are all solid, with Gemma Atherton and Caleb Landry Jones as the two standouts. Johnnie Lee Miller continues a quietly sound career of adroitly making the audience hate the characters he plays, while I will say I am beginning to tire of Soiarse Ronan. The characters she portrays all play to the strengths of her skill set, which she needs to further develop. I began to notice this in Hanna and especially Violet and Daisy, a film from last year’s festival that I found to suffer from the same problems as this film.
Upon learning this was based on a play by Moira Buffini, I found myself surprised in her ability to expand the overall scale of her story, but this may have been all in the director’s hands. Regrettably, it felt as if the plot lacked the same expansion, and was more focused on the relationships and idiosyncrasies of its protagonists. That’s alright for some, but for a film that relies solely on exposition to progress the narrative, I felt the addition of a few tense or shocking sequences would have benefited the film greatly.
Director Neil Jordan has had such a long career, but it has been muddled by his last few, so much so that it may be hard to recall his last solid outing. I applaud his visual aesthetic and will continue to watch his films due to his fantastic understanding of the scripts he works with, I just think that he needs to start choosing better scripts. I prefer to give re-imaginings and re-interpretations a chance as opposed to ignoring them completely, and this is just one way it can go. I think fans of the genre will still enjoy Byzantium, but with respect to vampires everywhere, I like me some fangs and coffins!
18 thoughts on “TIFF 2012 – Byzantium Review (Dustin SanVido)”
You’re entitled to your opinion, but Saoirse Ronan is already one of the most gifted actresses in film. You may be for whatever reason “tiring” of her, but she has “developed” at her young age enough to earn one Oscar and two BAFTA nominations to say nothing of her many other award wins and nominations.
Perhaps you may be better served by seeking out a career path in say real estate.
I appreciate your comment of my thoughts on the actress, in fact I welcome it. I still enjoy the films she performs in, particularly Hanna and Atonement, the films she garnered the most awards attention for. I’m just saying that for a young actress with no less than 16 films and numerous television performances in her already impressive career, its time for one to identify and correct their tendencies and further their skill-set to avoid laziness from creeping in. I believe she has a bright future in the movies
Its like they say in the NBA: An All-Star player always develops at least one new move or asset in his game between seasons in the summer so they always stay ahead of everyone else.
However, that last comment was a personal dig at me born of frustration and little else, and weakens the point you attempted to make. Thanks for commenting though and I hope you continue reading the site.
>>The characters she portrays all play to the strengths of her skill set, which she needs to further develop. I began to notice this in Hanna and especially Violet and Daisy, a film from last year’s festival that I found to suffer from the same problems as this film.
Interesting opinion, Dustin. Now just to get it out of the way: I am not part of Ms. Ronan’s PR team. I am not attacking your opinion of her performance – that’s yours to keep and to spread around, but what you think of actors and script choosing. Basically how their career “should” turn out if they want to “expand” their talents.
To address this, and your other comments, isn’t this a good thing? I don’t know if she “knows” her strengths, but wouldn’t it be common sense – and wise – that an actor becomes familiar with whatever limitations he has and seek roles that highlight these so called “strengths”? If this was a role in which an actor couldn’t perform well enough then we can conclude that A) it the director’s fault for not guiding the actor enough, if at all, B) a poor/thin script and/or B) the actor is ill-fitted for that particular role. Isolate or choose two or all three.
Since you did not tell readers what issues you have with Hanna or V+D (is there a review up for either one?), be it Ronan’s acting or the pace issue for the film, your “I found to suffer . . . . ” does not ring.
>>I’m just saying that for a young actress with no less than 16 films and numerous television performances in her already impressive career, its time for one to identify and correct their tendencies and further their skill-set to avoid laziness from creeping in. I believe she has a bright future in the movies
But what actor or actress who does not have a big filmography (is that what you’re trying to say?) identifies these negative tendencies – which you have not stated – in this “early” career stage? What needs to be corrected for Ronan? I have not seen V+D, but I have seen Hanna and City of Ember and one thing that Ronan does in each is she puts on a “serious” stare when needed. I think it’s safe to say that she does the same in Byzantium just from an official released 1 minute clip.
Maybe you think this role and her past roles are too much alike. Whatever it is, it just doesn’t seem like a legit concern, or at least one that warrants a “her role pickings are stagnating her talent.” Um, okay.
>>Its like they say in the NBA: An All-Star player always develops at least one new move or asset in his game between seasons in the summer so they always stay ahead of everyone else.
But this isn’t the NBA where summer of conditioning, weight lifting, or watching tape ie dedication and discipline can propel that player ahead of others. This is acting. An entire different “game” and an entire different set of “rules.” Even though I understand what you’re saying but the comparison is apples to oranges. An actor’s skill set is how that person “becomes” the character. Whether or not that actor has convinced you he or she is “reaching”/”pushing their limit” is irrelevant because what matters is what critics think of your performance and how an actor chooses scripts after a “breakout.”
I find that (“play to the strengths of her skill set, which she needs to further develop”) a very strange statement!
I’ve seen most of her movies to date and far from being a one or two trick pony as you put it, her acting skills are exceptional, versatile, and multilayered.
She also has a tremendous screen presence for someone so young.
Why don’t you check out her first big film role, – ‘I Could Never Be Your Woman’ with Michelle Pffifer. She was only 11 when she made this comedy and it showcased her almost preternatural talent and maturity.
Thanks for commenting tyrone, i have seen that film and completely forgot that was her in it… solid rom-com by the way… for the record I think Ms. Ronan is a fine actress who has many dramatic qualities, but after viewing five of her last six films (Byzantium, Violet and Daisy, Hanna, City of Ember) I don’t see the same growth that I saw earlier in her career. Perhaps that’s a by-product of her somewhat meteoric rise to stardom at such a young age or perhaps she’s become more interested in choosing the kinds of roles that her agent thinks she should work in.
It just seems as though either the director is asking her to do the same things as everything shes done before or she herself has become complacent in her own dramatic prowess and doesn’t feel the need to reach..
I call this the “Sam Rockwell” effect.
I also don’t believe I ever used the phrase “one trick pony”… but that was a nice touch
Thanks for commenting, it got me thinking a lot about her and I must not be seeing the versatility you referenced. That being said I think I”ll revisit that rom-com again….. keep commenting,we appreciate all feedback
@Dustin SanVido First things first. I apologize for the real estate crack. As a huge fan of Saoirse, I like others have been waiting in vain for a new film post Hanna, and when I read your otherwise well written review, I overreacted to what I considered to be jarring references to her.
@tyrone I could have written the words in your comment because I completely agree with them.
@27milehigh Because I’m very biased regarding her career, I don’t expect you to give my arguments much weight. I watch all types of cinema, from foreign, indie to mainstream, and I’ve never seen a young actress quite like her. Putting aside V&D (legal issues) and Byzantium, films not seen by “general audiences”, she has indeed progressed impressively since her debut in ICNBYW. If you follow the Oscar bloggers, you’d be familiar with her seriously being in the conversation for the best actress slot for TLB. Although she wasn’t nominated (age 15), she did get a nod from BAFTA and two with one win from The Broadcast Films Critics’ Association. She was nominated and won a number of other honors for the same film by numerous organizations.
She received incredible reviews for Hanna. Putting aside some award recognition for her starring role, critics widely praised her performance in the most glowing manner. I read well over three-hundred reviews, and critics both prominent and obscure largely loved her. For example, Todd McCarthy (senior film critic of The Hollywood Reporter) didn’t care for the pic, but in his summary sentence before the full review, he referred to her and (Cate Blanchette) as “two of the best actresses on the planet.” Saoirse was sixteen years old when she filmed Hanna! David Edelstein of New York Magazine said she is a “young actress of seemingly limitless ability.” Christy Lemire of the Associated Press said “the fact that Ronan is this good at this young age is what’s truly frightening here.” Peter Travers of The Rolling Stone called her an “acting sorceress.” Critics used descriptives such as stunning, mesmerizing etc. So, it is hard to accept your views about her because those who write film criticism clearly feel she is very special.
She combines stunning natural acting ability with a very powerful presence and charisma.
>> I don’t see the same growth that I saw earlier in her career. Perhaps that’s a by-product of her somewhat meteoric rise to stardom at such a young age or perhaps she’s become more interested in choosing the kinds of roles that her agent thinks she should work in.
Dustin, is that you? Is that your blog? Regardless, lets keep things in perspective and let’s practice, some, er, critical thinking and not resort to “well I think . . . ” because we all know where that gets you. Case in point the projects Ronan has done after Atonement. (Let’s keep it to those that have had premieres.)The Lovely Bones, The Way Back, Hanna, V+D and now Byzantium. Is this the typical resume for a young actress who has become more interested in the kinds of roles her agent wants? I don’t think so.
If there were other roles out there that were more “edgier”, at the time she was doing all said films, and that were actually good roles then please, tell us what other roles she should’ve done. Let’s exclude Mattie Ross from True Grit and Alexandria King from The Descendants.
>>It just seems as though either the director is asking her to do the same things as everything shes done before or she herself has become complacent in her own dramatic prowess and doesn’t feel the need to reach..
Reach for what? I honestly don’t see this complacent trend you see. I seriously don’t. Maybe Ronan’s range does not impress you, fair enough.
Again, let’s keep things in perspective. I’m not sure what you expect her to do when she’s OBVIOUSLY booking the most interesting projects in her age group regardless of how they fair critically. She made ICNBYW at 11. She’s 18 now. What under 20 actor/actress career says “that young guy/girl is sure pushing herself!” My memory goes blank. If there are many “bad” scripts for adult actors then just imagine how many “bad” scripts there are for teenagers.
Tough to take the review seriously when the author can’t figure out it’s mother-daughter not two sisters.
Thanks for the comment Phil
You should know, however, that you have just revealed, and thus spoiled, a major plot point in the film that was intentionally left out by myself.
Writers of the Entertainment Maven pride themselves on withholding spoilers and major plot reveals which may hinder the viewing experience of our readers.
The information provided by the marketing for the film states the two characters as sisters, probably in an attempt to reveal a few surprises later in the film
Thanks for commenting and keep reading!
Sorry if it was a spoiler, but I think it might have been wiser to use the term “two women or females” than say something that wasn’t true. Or even use the quotes around sister (“sister”) as other sites did. Otherwise it taints your review.
Not a fan of vampire movies, but found this one well worth the time and money. Just my opinion.
Come on Phil! I added the ‘MAJOR SPOILER’ heading for you because I want this dialogue to be able to continue.
Please indicate spoilers in CAPS before your post if you’re going to reveal something major about the plot. We don’t want to ruin the movie for anyone who hasn’t seen it. Thanks.
Sam Rockwell effect!?
She has ‘The Host’ (duel role within one mind – not your average Disney actress role) coming out next March.
And from what I’ve read she’s signed on for some heavy duty dramatics playing Mary Stuart in ‘Mary, Queen Of Scots’ and acclaimed writer and pacifist Vera Brittain in ‘Testament Of Youth’.
Every actress should have an agent like Saoirse Ronan!
I’m interested in seeing Byzantium mostly for Saoirse Ronan’s performance, however, according to your good self, she isn’t one of the “standouts” here… Strange that…. In her films to date she’s always been a/the standout no matter how big or small the role.
Perhaps there’s an over-expectation on Ronan to choose and deliver the most diverse roles, or, maybe in your opinion she doesn’t really have as much as you thought she had in her locker and has basically been playing the same character in her last few roles? Just maybe you have stumbled on the fact that she’s been conning us all along, or could be you just don’t see what everyone else sees?
Hope you’ve something to fall back on.
@CJ Almost every other critic who’s seen the movie say Saoirse does an expected good job. The movie itself doesn’t have that much pull. It’s only this reviewer that’s taking things too personal and tries to make a case with flawed opinions of his own. He thinks Ronan’s limited and has a one trick pony resume but compared to whom her age?
He’s basically saying she’s not that good at what she does and never comes up with a decent argument. On the other hand, one of the comments here told him his view was a bit unrealistic and he got fired up about it. If you can dish it out, you need to be able to take it too.
To the author, you have double standards. If she’s doing such a bad job, which according to you she is because you basically call her a hack if you say 5 of her last 6 performances are bad, then why does she keep getting high profile roles which are very different to one another and consistently scoring rave critics? If you apply that to other actresses especially in her age range, tell me, who’s better at picking roles and portraying them. I would love to know that and see you twist your way in yet even more ridiculous turns.
It’s a safe bet this guy will come out guns blazing upon reviewing The Host.
The thing with the author’s opinion, and his comments to other posters, is that he think she’s “tiresome” (what does that even mean in this context?) but he goes on to compliment her that she’s a fine actress with dramatic qualities. He gives her a point then takes that point away leaving her with zero points. It really doesn’t make much sense.
Which is it Dustin? Because I’m certainly confused with your opinion.
“I will say I’m beginning to tire of Saoirse Ronan – the characters she portrays all play to the strengths of her skill set”
Are you saying she doesn’t have any range, or isn’t a skillful enough actress?
I don’t get what you’re saying.
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