Neil Jordan has long been captivated by the meeting of myth and magic and storytelling with the material world of love and sex and family, from the fairytale reworking of A Company of Wolves through the folktale on the Irish coast in Ondine. Byzantium, based on a play by Moira Buffin, is his second take on the vampire legend and this one is far less traditional than Interview with a Vampire. There is blood, of course, and there is sex, but it’s less about eros than survival as an eternal in a mortal world, and as woman who dares claim the rights reserved by a cabal of men.
Clara (Gemma Arterton) walks the streets (in this case, the boardwalk of a British coastal town in the off-season) to pay the bills for herself and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), an eternal sensitive teen pouring out her soul in unread letters cast to the wind. Flashbacks tell their origins: a life of degradation at the hands of a British officer (a proudly debauched Jonny Lee Miller) in an 18th century culture of male power and class division, and a desperate attempt to escape a death sentence of disease through an ancient ritual reserved for a cabal of powerful men who ruthlessly guard the secret of immortality.
Byzantium is rich with metaphor and sexual politics, almost overwhelmingly so. It’s a Gothic tale with a twist of conspiracy and a radically different take on vampirism as ancient earth force tightly controlled by a male cabal who treat the transformation like a birthright.