It’s become obvious to me since starting this blog quite recently, that it’s important to engage with film at a wider level than just going to check out the latest multiplex offerings (though I shall continue doing that of course). One of the most vibrant expressions of film culture is the film festival, of which London, like all large cities, boasts a great variety.
This is now the 12th year of London’s Annual International Festival of Science Fiction and Fantastic Film, though they prefer to be known as the hyphen-happy Sci-Fi-London for short, not least because the annual festival is just one aspect of their ongoing engagement with this niche of film culture. However, the festival is the highlight of their calendar, and every year brings a diverse new crop of films that bear some relationship to the stated subject, though in a range of genres and styles, with quality ranging from the amateur to auteurist. It’s all enthusiastically brought together by possibly the most idiosyncratic and charismatic of festival directors, Louis Savy.
This year is no exception, and this opening night film was given an engaging intro by Louis, followed by a Q&A with the film’s producer Stephen Woolley, as well as its charming and eloquent writer Moira Buffini, and cast member Daniel Mays. Many of the other screenings also feature special guests. The festival runs until 6 May this year, split between the (very comfortable and pleasant) Stratford Picturehouse and the BFI Southbank.
Before I even start this review, can I just state, if it wasn’t already obvious to you, how spectacular the film poster is. It’s a gloriously eyecatching image featuring the titular hotel, which is ostensibly located on the Hastings seafront where most of the film is set. If the movie itself can’t possibly compete with this singular, gorgeously baroque vision, its images are still wonderfully striking, thanks to the work of Director of Photography Sean Bobbitt, who also recently worked on The Place Beyond the Pines (2013).
The two films share more similarity than just the cinematographer, though. They both have a certain epic grandeur to their storytelling; after all, in its title Byzantium references the ancient Greek city (now Istanbul) and its empire, just as the other film’s title references the rich traditions of Native American storytelling. Such epic qualities in this film are only enhanced by the settings, from the crumbling, decadent hotel of the poster with its striking wrought-iron lift, to the dilapidated pier grimly overpowering the concrete seafront walkway, and ultimately the wild and crashing seas of the primaeval island setting (this last filmed not in Hastings, but on the western coast of Ireland).
At its most reductive, it’s a vampire film, but like any of these, the mythology is just an opening to deal with other issues: dislocation from society and relationships, mortality and morality, and, peculiar perhaps to this interpretation, gender relations. For here the two lead characters are a 200-year-old mother and daughter (played by Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan respectively), whose peripatetic lives are intertwined with a mysterious Brotherhood, an ancient (and dare I say, Byzantine) organisation dedicated at once to a mysterious ‘Code’ and, perhaps more urgently, to being a bunch of nasty misogynists desperate to cling to their patriarchal entitlement. The story follows the two leads as they flee one of the Brotherhood to the English seaside, where past and present are intermingled in the reminiscences of Ronan’s character Eleanor Webb.
For the most part, the acting is superb, particularly the uncanny gaze and tightly-coiled enigmatic silence of Saoirse Ronan. Supporting her, the rest of the cast do well within the setting, including some early-19th century period-costume turns by Jonny Lee Miller and Sam Riley, with equally period-appropriate names Ruthven and Darvell calling to mind the earliest vampiric writings. There’s also a nice uncredited appearance from Tom Hollander as a well-meaning teacher.
Along with the above-mentioned epic quality to the narrative, it also shares with Pines the sometimes aggravating habit of constructing neatly convenient situations, characters and traits in order to move forward the plot and develop salient themes. To take some examples from the start, we have the lead character’s habit of writing down her secret story and throwing it to the wind, an old man who discovers her truth and motivates the first engagement with the morality of vampirism, encounters with Caleb Landry Jones’ dying teenager, and the arrival of Daniel Mays’s john with his opulent and recently-vacated seafront property. However, when placed in the context of the whole film, these interventions seem of a piece with its grandiose mythologising; a scene like that of Arterton writhing half-naked under a waterfall of blood would certainly seem ridiculously camp on its own, but by the time it occurs in the film, it hardly seems too out of place.
Certainly, it’s a fine line the film walks, at points recalling the somber atmospherics of Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In, 2008), yet at others attaining more of a grand Guignol melodrama. If it does show anything though, it’s that vampirism is not just for the boys.
Director Neil Jordan; Writer Moira Buffini (based on her play A Vampire Story); Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt; Starring Saoirse Ronan, Sam Riley, Gemma Arterton, Jonny Lee Miller; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at Stratford Picturehouse, London, Tuesday 30 April 2013.