The narration “My story can never be told” is a bold challenge to open a movie with, especially yet another moody, lovely-to-look-upon Neil Jordan gothic fantasy, even if one of middling accomplishment. Otherworldly blood courses in his pale Irish veins, from “The Company of Wolves” to “In Dreams” and of course, “Interview with the Vampire.” In “Byzantium,” working with a screenplay by Moira Buffini (“Tamara Drewe,” “Jane Eyre”) from her 2007 play for young adults, “A Vampire Story,” Jordan also finds himself once more in a seaside setting (see: almost everything he’s done), where a mother and daughter, not so many years apart, yet undead for two centuries, twenty-four-year-old Clara (Gemma Arterton) and sixteen-year-old Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), run a rundown guesthouse called “Byzantium.” Memories of saturnine sexual crime reign in a bleak Ireland, both present day and of a century past. Jordan invests Arterton with a plush morbidity, and he’s attentive to Ronan’s preternaturally level gaze. The dialogue dallies in the purple and engorged: “The pearl stays pure forever while the oyster’s flesh rots around it.” Also: “You can’t throw the past away as if it didn’t happen,” beaten only by “I walk and the past walks with me. It lives.” The men they meet are universally bad—Jonny Lee Miller, Sam Riley, Daniel Mays, Thure Lindhardt—and the innocent tempted by Eleanor is a ginger ephebe (Caleb Landry Jones) whom Jordan invests with an erotic charge in each glimpse of his pillowed lips and the moment when he first lets down his long pale hair. There are images and moments to savor, such as when one of the women pauses a moment after a fine blooding: She touches her lips, pulling at the red like jelly or jam. There are also a few instances of splendid gushing and spurting and garroting and THUMP as well as some smothering, blood-draining, essential fuckery. Jordan’s history with prostitutes is reinvested here, too: “Fifty for a blow, a hundred for a wank” is met by “Now go be a professional or I’ll put you back sucking cock on the street.” In the end, despite its eager broodiness, “Byzantium” is more a bodice-jostler than a ripper. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt demonstrates his range, extending the heightened naturalism of “Shame,” “Hunger,” and “The Place Beyond The Pines” to musty, Gaelic rococo worlds. 118m. (Ray Pride)
“Byzantium” opens Friday at Landmark Century.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.