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Byzantium Review: Vampires Minus the V-Word
In Byzantium, Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) are Sucreants, vampire-like creatures that never age, live on blood and must be invited into homes before they can enter. While these are recognized vampire traits, they do have some unique characteristics as well. Unlike regular vampires, they can walk in the sun and instead of fangs they have a thumbnail which grows into a very long, sharp talon that they use to puncture veins. They’re not necessarily stronger than regular people, nor can they move at super speeds. They survive by one rule, which is that they never reveal the truth of their existence to anyone.
While both Clara and Eleanor are of the same species, their methods of existence are very different. Clara works as a stripper and is more savage and street smart. She lives in the Now, leaving the past behind and forgetting everything that happens the moment it’s over. For her everything is temporary and changeable at a moment’s notice. The only thing she cares about more than herself is Eleanor.
Eleanor forgets nothing, and is continually haunted by the past. She writes down her story and then throws the pages to the wind or in the sea, because no one is allowed to know it. When she feeds, it’s on those ready to die. She’s an angel of death, releasing people from their pain and misery. Outwardly, she’s cold and detached, preferring isolation, but she longs for someone to whom she can tell her story without killing them afterwards. As fate would have it, she finds a friend in Frank (Caleb Landry Jones) who persists in talking to her even though she doesn’t encourage him to. She considers telling him her secret once she learns his, but when she does he doesn’t believe her.
When Byzantium starts, they’re on the run after Clara kills a man that was chasing her. It seems that female members of the species are frowned upon, so there’s a hunt on for the two of them. They flee to a seaside town that Eleanor remembers but that Clara doesn’t, or at least she says she doesn’t. There Clara meets Noel, a nice but lonely guy whose mother left him a boarding house with a view of the ocean. Clara uses her wiles to get Noel to let them stay, though he tells Eleanor that he knows she’s using him for a place to crash and doesn’t care.
Byzantium is a story told both in the past and in the present. We learn the backstory of the Sucreants mostly through Eleanor, though there are gaps in her knowledge that Clara fills in for the audience, even if Eleanor’s not around to hear them.
One thing that sets Byzantium apart from other vampire movies is that no character ever actually uses the V-word to describe Clara or Eleanor or any of the other immortal characters. It’s spoken once, by Eleanor, but not in a serious way. Their powers and disabilities are subtle as well. They need to be invited into homes, but instead of saying anything about it, they just linger a few steps behind the person whose house they’re going to and they naturally get an invite inside because they’re lagging. There’s one time where a character asks if Eleanor needs an invitation, but that’s just to confirm to the audience that they do.
Byzantium’s flashback scenes revolve around Clara and Eleanor’s story as humans and how they become Sucreants. This part of the story is a little stronger than the first part of the modern storyline, but I think that’s because we need to know Clara and Eleanor’s past in order to understand their present situation.
The scenes on the nameless isle where the transformation from human to Sucreant takes place will make vampire fans very very happy. Not only is it a place where you could imagine something supernatural dwelling, the atmosphere Byzantium creates there is breath-taking. I want to talk more about what happens there, but don’t want to spoil the surprise for those who haven’t seen it.
The past and the present eventually collide for Clara and Eleanor, with results that are disastrous for some but that also lead to new beginnings for others. Mysteries are unraveled, though there are still things that remain more shadowy than others. It’s a taste of how things go in the world of Byzantium, and I’d love another, though I’m not sure that’s too likely, which is a shame because there are definitely more stories to tell.