Eleanor Webb (Saoirse Ronan) likes to write stories about her life, as it has been a very long life indeed, but she cannot ever share the results with anyone because of a pact she has made with her mother Clara (Gemma Arterton) never to disclose the details of their existence together. This means she has a habit of tearing out the pages of her notebooks and scrumpling them up, then throwing them out of the window to be carried away by the wind. This has brought attention from one old man who has noticed and read them, which allows Eleanor to carry out her vocation...
Which is to suck the blood of the living, because she's one of those vampires you hear so much about, or did in the early twenty-first century when the Twilight series of books and movies made them big business once again. When Byzantium was released, it was seemingly impossible to mention it without also referring to that franchise, either to say it was Twilight for those who preferred blood in their horror films, or to distance it from the perceived soppiness of Stephenie Meyer's creations, but you could see Moira Buffini's script being the basis for a series of yarns based around the mother-daughter team of Clara and Eleanor with its very particular backstory, vein-opening thumbnails and all.
Actually, this was less intent on romance, though there was an element of that when Eleanor strikes up a friendship with the sickly Frank (Caleb Landry Jones) and threatens to blab all her secrets to him, and more on the parental relationship when the offspring is the more responsible one. With its British setting in an off season seaside town, Byzantium was oddly reminiscent of A Taste of Honey in its premise, not the supernatural business but Clara depending on her daughter more than her daughter depends on her, and this leads them to drift apart, except the classic sixties kitchen sink movie did not have the two characters reunite when some authority or other arrives in town to bring them to justice.
That's male vampire on female vampire justice, it should be pointed out, as nobody from the actual police appears to investigate the spate of fluid-drained bodies presumably doted around the country, though this was a story most interested in its own mythology rather than one reaching for social realism. This was in spite of a tone aiming through Neil Jordan's direction to be as downbeat, therefore as convincing, as possible, as if he was trying to retool his work for Interview with the Vampire with an authentic female slant, and that had Tom Cruise played by Arterton and Brad Pitt as Ronan, their most obvious movie star counterparts of around twenty years later. Or maybe not, but Arterton appeared to be having a lot more fun than her co-star.
Saoirse barely smiled once throughout the entirety of her screen time, and was such a moping presence that she brought the rest of the movie down to that level, not anything she was not required to do by the script, but you did feel the heart sink a little when the plot returned to Eleanor and her thwarted attempts at self-expression. Gemma's was, by contrast, a far more vibrant performance, and lifted the moody atmosphere considerably whenever she sprung into action as she persuades a local loser (Daniel Mays) to allow her and her daughter to move into his empty hotel home and turn the place into a brothel. Meanwhile, Eleanor brings unwise atttention when the essay she wrote for Frank is submitted by him against her wishes to the school she is tentatively attending, even though she really has no reason to other than to keep the story plodding along. With flashbacks to two hundred years ago and the ladies' transformation via a magical island, Byzantium threatens to become more absorbing than it eventually is, though Arterton's energy kept it watchable. Music by Javier Navarrete.