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Feature


Two mysterious women seek refuge in a run-down coastal resort. Clara (Gemma Arterton) meets lonely Noel (Daniel Mays), who provides shelter in his deserted guesthouse, Byzantium. Schoolgirl Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) befriends Frank (Caleb Landry Jones) and tells him their lethal secret: they were born 200 years ago and survive on human blood. As knowledge of their secret spreads, their past catches up to them with deathly consequence. (From IFC’s official synopsis)

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During my review of Xan Cassavetes’ Kiss of the Damned, I mused that this latest wave of vampire fiction has hit a crest where ‘classy’ filmmakers are willing to approach the subject once again. And who better to enter the the latest posh vampire craze than the guy that helped recreate the creatures during the previously romanticized wave – Neil Jordan. In 1994, Jordan directed an incredibly ostentatious adaptation of Anne Rice’s super-popular novel, Interview with the Vampire, and, along with Francis Ford Coppola ( Bram Stoker’s Dracula), help reinstate elegance to vampire movies without a thick layer of irony or camp. Interview with the Vampire is probably Jordan’s most popular film. He did have other brushes with mainstream success ( Mona Lisa and The Crying Game) and after ( The End of the Affair, The Brave One), but his ‘indie’ sensibilities have endured enough to keep many of his films beneath the popular culture radar – so far that his last four movies had only limited releases outside of the UK and/or Ireland. Occasionally, I wonder what ever happened to him, then I realize that he has been quietly releasing a movie every two-to-three years since his 1982 debut.

This relative anonymity helps Jordan thrive as an artist. His films share themes and, quite often, locations (usually Ireland), but are still quite eclectic in terms of imagery and subject matter. Even the bad ones are usually uniquely Neil Jordan-esque. I found the news that he was returning to vampire fiction was both exciting and worrisome. It was exciting, because Jordan is such a strong visualist that the stylistic possibilities seemed endless. It was worrisome, because, Interview with the Vampire not withstanding, his most conventional (note: not financially successful) films are usually his weakest. Because Byzantium is based on a stage play and because Jordan himself often thrives on limited locations, I had also feared that it would be a confined, unintentionally claustrophobic production. Jordan ends up finding a way to embrace the scene to scene structure without limiting his scope and scale. The film kicks off with a breathless and pleasantly unexpected foot chase, then settles into a sort of waltz-like pattern of pacing and editing that serves the material well without losing its core qualities. Besides the chase, the achingly suspenseful climax, and a cheeky bit where the characters watch scenes from Terence Fisher’s Dracula: Prince of Darkness, Jordan doesn’t get too cute with the film’s cinematic qualities. Instead, he maintains a silken and stagy look, alternating between handsomely lit shots with very little in the way of broad camera movement.

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The script is written by Moira Buffini, based on her own play, which was apparently aimed at young adults, despite the film’s gore, sex, and naughty language. It may seem incidental that Buffini is a woman, but I think it’s significant that both of Jordan’s stately vampire movies were written by women that were working from their own stories. There’s a definitively feminine quality to both films, something Byzantium takes further by revolving around female characters. Like Interview with the Vampire, the story is occasionally framed with flashback devices, but unlike that film, these flashbacks are brief reprieves from the modern day sequences. Buffini effectively tasks herself with telling three converging stories at once – she compares/contrasts Eleanor and Clara’s current plotlines while also intersecting pieces of their shared back-story – yet, the plot doesn’t feel cluttered in its mostly episodic approach. Buffini’s real problem is that she has too many unique ways of altering traditional vampire mythology and doesn’t have the time to fully explore them within the confines of a two-hour motion picture. Still, it’s surprisingly easy to enjoy her subtle slants of the conventions, even when she and Jordan are skipping through some very intriguing notions without giving them enough time to really gel as full concepts. There’s enough plot here to fill a series of movies.

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Video


I believe that Byzantium marks the first time Jordan has worked with the digital HD format in a feature capacity (he has directed episodes of The Borgias using digital cameras). This 1080p, 2.40:1 transfer looks the part without appearing entirely unnatural. The film alternates between deep-set wide shots that expose rich patterns and tightly-focused close-ups that feature crisp textures. None of the details are incredibly sharp, but this is in keeping with the film’s aesthetic. Early in the film, Jordan and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (who has worked with director Steve McQueen on all three of his films) contrast two very different palettes – Eleanor’s cold, soft, pastel home environment and Clara’s lurid, harsh, and vivid working environment. A base palette is never firmly established – night scenes are particularly blue/purple, the darker interiors are warm and toasted – but the look is generally homogenous. The more lush pallets are stark with tightly separated, while the lighter, more eclectic palettes include plusher edges and smoother gradations. Blacks are deep all around (especially in the brothel-based flashbacks), but, aside from a couple of nearly monochromatic sequences, the highlights are often pleasantly mellow. The sharpest black edges occasionally have thin edge haloes and some of the softest gradations are a bit ‘bandy.’

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Audio


Byzantium is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. The soundtrack is largely understated, depending on Academy Award-nominated composer Javier Navarrete’s ( Pan’s Labyrinth) score for dynamic texture. For the most part, the track revels in creamy, natural ambience, not high volume levels or directional effects. It’s elegantly, rather than aggressively, immersive. There are some particularly stylized moments, the bulk of which is reserved for the flashbacks. The differences between this footage and the modern sequences are really subtle, but the basic sound qualities/volume levels are accentuated when stuff like chattering brothel patrons and swirling, chattering birds are present. All the sound effects during the flashbacks are just generally heightened and louder, as if there’s more life in Eleanor’s memories than her current existence. Occasionally, the dialogue appears a bit off-sync and feature a couple of clicks of sound reduction effects, but tends to blend nicely into the rounded environmental ambience. Navarrete’s music is very rarely muted for more than a couple of minutes at a time and flows effortlessly from dramatic, waltzes and bassy chanting choirs to a more tense, shuddering horror score. All of the music is given rich stereo/surround enhancement and deep LFE support.

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Extras


Besides a trailer and trailers for other IFC releases, this disc’s special features revolve exclusively around a series of cast and crew interviews (1:16:30, HD), including Jordan, Buffini, producers Stephen Woolley and Alan Moloney, cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, stunt co-coordinator Donal O’Farrell, production designer Simon Elliott, key make-up artist Lynn Johnston, and actors Gemma Arterton, Saoirse Ronan, Sam Riley, and Caleb Landry Jones. These are your typical press kit Q&A-type interviews, including a title card before each question, noting what was asked, who is being spoken to, and how long each answer will be. It’s all a bit dry, but a decent stand-in for a commentary track.

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Overall


Byzantium sometimes feels a bit overdrawn and unfocused, but Neil Jordan, in collaboration with writer Moira Buffini, has created an interesting and surprisingly unique look at the melodrama of being a vampire. It’s tempting to compare it to the Twilight films, especially since it also deals with the difficulties of 200-year-olds trapped in teenage bodies. Such comparisons are moot, however, because Byzantium is aimed pretty squarely at an adult audience and features at least double the conceptual content as the entire run of the popular ‘tweeny series. It ends with a chance of a sequel that will probably never come, but I’m more interested in what happened in between and wonder if the material would’ve been better suited to a book franchise than a stand-alone feature. IFC’s Blu-ray sports a colourful transfer, an atmospheric DTS-HD MA soundtrack, and a fluffy, but informative series of cast and crew interviews.

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* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking the individual images, but due to .jpg compression, they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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