“Stories are fundamental things,” says a high school English teacher in Byzantium. “We tell them to learn about the world and about ourselves.” This line could be uttered in almost any of Neil Jordan’s films, which frequently employ elements from folklore to ruminate on fears and desires we retain from childhood. Jordan’s perennial theme is that we’re attracted to the unknown even as we fear it. The Company of Wolves (1984) conveys this most explicitly, imbuing the Little Red Riding Hood story with teenage fears of adult sexuality. But it also motivates some of Jordan’s more earthbound films, such as The Butcher Boy (1997) and Breakfast on Pluto (2005), which follow a schizophrenic and a transsexual, respectively, as each enters into a life on the margins of society.
Byzantium reiterates this theme, but not to any novel result. The heroines are a mother (Gemma Arterton) and daughter (Saoirse Ronan) who became vampires in the early 19th century and have lived as nomads ever since. The film alternates between the present, as the two attempt to put down roots in a small Irish resort town, and the past, specifically the story of their original transformation. Moira Buffini, adapting her play A Vampire Story, reveals that the mother was a poor girl forced into prostitution. Even after becoming immortal, she never stopped whoring herself, and though she turned her daughter into a vampire, she’s adamant that the girl will never follow her into prostitution. The daughter has grown sullen and increasingly resentful of her mother yet feels too loyal to leave her side.
Since this relationship is made clear at the start of Byzantium, the movie doesn’t have much to do but fill in the particulars, and since the characters seem to have changed very little in 200 years, few of the revelations prove surprising. When the daughter enrolls in a local high school, she takes interest in a classmate with leukemia and attempts to tell him her secret, presenting it in the form of a class essay. This development feels especially Jordanesque: sharing a story becomes an initiation rite into a dangerous unknown (which Jordan mirrors, elegantly, in his gradual revelation of the 19th-century narrative). Yet it isn’t clear why an old soul would identify with an adolescent (even one who’s close to death) or continue to behave like a teenager herself. Unfortunately Jordan doesn’t bother to address these issues; he’s interested only in developing a metaphor, and the result is the sort of personal filmmaking that, despite all the lush camerawork and gothic imagery, fails on almost all but the director’s narrow terms.