Review: Byzantium (Because Vampire Rhymes With Empire)

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More than A Vampire Story (the short story upon which this film is based), Neil Jordan’s Byzantium is a tale of Britain's dwindling Empire. As the film was partly financed by Ireland's Film Board (a country with famously vocal citizens for independence from Great Britain), Byzantium might voice a quiet "serves you right" to a world power who naturally shows scars where lands have been cut away from it. Or perhaps Vampire and Empire are words too rhyme-y not to compare.

Ireland’s Cork Pier stands in for Dunkirk or Brighton—a defiled resort town made of ancient retirees, unrepaired amusements and battle stories. This is the spot where Gemma Arterton lost her virginity and gained her profession, bore a baby girl (Soirse Ronan) and risked them both to spare the child her mother’s fate.

The medicated prostitutes that line the pier today are all managed by a pimp Arterton wastes little time disposing, and she briskly forms a brothel in the neglected remains of a long misused hotel, the sort middle class travelers would call “quaint” when visiting on holiday. Arterton’s momentary boyfriend inherited the place and bemoans his failure with it; his generation is far from the greatest.

Sam Riley is an immortal that in 1804 loved Arterton before either were forced to take on immortal bodies. A sickness stricken soldier, he found a durable if clandestine way to uphold the Old Ways (vampirism). His prestigious brotherhood was entrusted a map to an island where a nameless saint would reveal the world’s knowledge by granting you endless time. Each who enter the isle are like Adam, granted a choice and a gruesome apple. Just as he was in Control, Riley plays a seething seeker, a youth too wise and therefore too pent up for the world to contain. Even in a suit, he can’t walk the pier without reviving memories of his 2010 movie Brighton Rock.

Tom Hollander, who shared the screen with Soirse Ronan in Hanna, ironically aims to guide her here, get her mental health care, read the stories she writes because bodies need to tell stories. He doesn’t fare well, but his gentility endangers him and gives us cause to believe even the school marms who uphold Mother England can’t save it from its slash-and-burn cycles. Spilled blood may replenish the soil, but it may be best to go searching for another Capital. After Byzantium came Constantinople.

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