That Neil Jordan sympathizes with outsiders and social outcasts has been clear for years. Whether this means revolutionaries (“Michael Collins”) or transsexuals (“The Crying Game”) or more fictional creatures such as werewolves (“In the Company of Wolves”) and vampires (“Interview with the Vampire”), Jordan is never happier than when he can suggest their angst or lonely confusion.
In his new film “Byzantium,” he returns to vampire lore but with a twist. These are female vampires and, in one case, a prostitute to boot.
The film comes loaded with a lush, creepy atmosphere and a hushed sense of foreboding. The actors all wear long faces and his cameraman, Sean Bobbitt, makes sure even a sunny day looks overcast. A feeling of utter desolation settles over everything.
Jordan is enough of a master craftsman to pull you into this environment and make you feel the gloom & doom almost as strongly he obviously does.
But the story itself, which comes at you in fits and starts, never quite grabs a hold. It’s too scattered. You may admire this film, but not particularly enjoy it.
Moira Buffini bases her screenplay on her play, “A Vampire’s Story,” which has a strongly feminist point of view. Which is not a bad idea for when you think about it, most vampire tales are about males. Why is that?
So it’s Buffini’s idea that the vampire brotherhood is thoroughly sexist. In her story, the males won’t continence the idea of a female vampire.
But one female broke the code and became one. Then her daughter did. They’ve been on the run for 200 years.
So after a strange and bloody opening, two mysterious young women seek refuge in a suitably dilapidated and brooding English coastal town. Boats sit in dry dock on a lonely beach and the only thriving business seems to be that of prostitution — and an orphanage.
Ominously, the younger one looks around and declares, “We’ve been here before.”
The elder one, Clara (the exotic Gemma Arterton), who’s about 24, has been a sex worker for two centuries. Eleanor (the soulful Saoirse Ronan) is a only few years younger at 16 but is in fact her daughter.
This puzzling age range is explained by the fact that both 200-year-old vampires got locked forever into the age of their transformation. Imagine having to be 16 for all eternity!
Soon it becomes clear this coastal town is where they lost their human lives two centuries earlier. That story gets filtered through the modern-day story of a boy Eleanor befriends, Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), suffering from leukemia, and the forces in pursuit of both female vampires.
Mother and daughter cannot be more unalike. Clara has willingly continued leading a whore’s life to support herself and her child. But as a young, consumptive woman, prior to becoming a vampire, she left Eleanor on the steps of the orphanage. So her daughter grew up believing in modesty and honesty.
Consequently, Eleanor only kills those who seek release from this life, mostly the elderly, which she does with an incision from one very long thumbnail. Mom on the other hand goes after men she dislikes, such as a pimp whose business she wants to take away.
Clara picks up morose Noel (Daniel Mays), who has inherited a run-down, once glamorous guesthouse called Byzantium. Passing Eleanor off as her sister, Clara moves them into Noel’s building which she promptly turns into a brothel.
Such is the strength of the relationship Eleanor forms with Frank that she is tempted to share her secret with the dying youth. This proves to be almost as big a threat to women as the male vampires on their trail, who mean to eliminate all vestiges of females in their clan.
The actors perform their roles with vigor and the story has its surprises. Yet the movie shifts gears constantly as it drifts back and forth between the present and past and then gets distracted with so many plot stands that nothing ever jells until near the end.
Too much time is spent on the tale of how the two women achieved their immortality, which involves an arrogant and sneering Navy captain Ruthven (Jonny Lee Miller) and a kindlier lieutenant, Darvell (Sam Riley).
These sequences occupy so much screen time that more interesting subjects such as the mother-daughter conflicts or Eleanor’s relationships with the downtrodden Frank aren’t fully explored
Then Jordan and Buffini drag you out to rocky isle offshore not once, not twice, but three times for a transformation of humans into a “sucreant.” This involves images of a cave, flocks of birds roaring out of the rocks and a surrounding waterfall suddenly running red with blood.
It’s an okay effect the first time but loses much of its power in subsequent visits.
So what you’re left with are two powerful performances by the earthy Arterton, who looks like she’s enjoying herself as a trashy vampire tart, and Ronan as the moody, put-upon daughter who longs for her freedom from mom.
There was a really smart movie here had Jordan been a little more adventurous. Instead he settles for gothic melodrama. And blood waterfalls.
Opens: June 28, 2013 L.A., New York (IFC Films)
Production companies: Number 9 Films, Parallel Films, Demarest Films
Cast: Gemma Arterton, Saoirse Ronan, Sam Riley, Jonny Lee Miller, Daniel Mays, Caleb Landry Jones, Thure Lindhardt, Uri Gavriel, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Tom Hollander
Director: Neil Jordan
Screenwriter: Moira Buffini, based on her play “A Vampire’s Story”
Producers: Stephen Woolley, Alan Moloney, Elizabeth Karlsen, William D. Johnson, Samuel Englebardt
Executive producers: Mark C. Manuel, Ted O’Neal, Sharon Harel-Cohen, Danny Perkins, Norman Merry
Director of photography: Sean Bobbitt
Production designer: Simon Elliott
Music: Javier Navarette
Costume designer: Consolata Boyle
Editor: Tony Lawson
R rating, 118 minutes