We have the Twilight franchise to thank for the fact that almost no sane adult wants to see another vampire movie, ever. Not that all the Twilight movies were bad. The first, directed by Catherine Hardwicke, hit a teen-dream sweet spot, the point where gothic lit meets the iPod. And Bill Condon's Breaking Dawn — Part I reached spiraling levels of nuttiness, including a placenta-riffic birth scene Dario Argento would have been proud of.
But Neil Jordan's Byzantium — its script by Irish-born playwright Moira Buffini — is more in league with Joss Whedon's cerebral, passionate Buffy the Vampire Slayer series than with the fangless Twilight universe. Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan play 200-year-old vamps on the lam, though neither looks a day over 28: The criminally curvy Clara (Arterton) rustles up a living for the two of them as a prostitute and sometime stripper. Her younger sister, the prim, sensitive Eleanor (Ronan), is a perennial schoolgirl and accomplished pianist. After Clara makes a particularly grisly mess involving a human neck and a bit of piano wire, the two flee to a ramshackle seaside town, a half-asleep wonderland of faded paint and squawking seagulls. There, a mumbly young busboy and student named Frank (Caleb Landry Jones, recently seen in Brandon Cronenberg's Antiviral) falls instantly for Eleanor, watching in amazement as she tickles the ivories. He asks how long she had to practice to get so good. She answers drily, barely looking up from the task at hand, "Two hundred years."
But it's not long before Frank — himself a lad with a secret — wears Eleanor's defenses down. Because Byzantium, like all good vampire stories, is a romance, and Jordan opens himself up to its atmospheric lushness. In that sense, Byzantium is highly unfashionable right now, just as Jordan himself is, wrongly, out of fashion. The Irish filmmaker's last picture, the 2009 Ondine — in which a fisherman played by an almost unbearably sad-eyed Colin Farrell catches a water nymph in his net — was gorgeous and soulful, a careworn fairy tale set in the real world. Barely anyone saw it. For one thing, it was made for grownups, a forlorn group so neglected by filmmakers these days that they've practically given up even expecting good films crafted for them. For another, it was a movie about a mermaid, and there doesn't seem to be much of a market for that sort of thing these days.
But that's exactly what Jordan is good at: movies so heavy on mood and atmosphere that you instantly believe in their specific place and time, and before long you believe in their characters, too — mermaids, vampires, whatever. Byzantium isn't Jordan's first movie about bloodsuckers — that would be 1994's Interview with the Vampire — but it's the right vampire movie for today, poetic and elegant in an artfully tattered way. The crumbly-beautiful resort town where Eleanor and Clara temporarily hang their hats is just the place vampires might land. As shot by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, it's a forlorn funland that may have been largely abandoned by human beings but not by the sea, still rushing in with its reliable roar.
That sense of continuity and mystery is essential to Byzantium: In one of the most striking sequences, the modern-day Eleanor sees the early 19th-century version of herself, in a bonnet and rough cloak, warily picking her way across that same seashore as the spooky-resplendent strains of the Coventry Carol fill the soundtrack. Ronan makes a wonderful vampire teen. Her Eleanor is so serious-minded that you can barely imagine her falling in love, though it makes sense when she finally succumbs to Jones' Frank, a redhead who, with his translucent skin and seemingly lashless eyes, resembles a pond-nymph: He's water and she's earth.
Sam Riley and Jonny Lee Miller also show up in Byzantium, the former as a principled naval officer, the latter as a craven, sleazy one, each seductive in his own way. But it's regally saucy bad gal Arterton who serves up the biggest dose of sex appeal. It doesn't hurt that the movie's costumers know how to celebrate her comeliness, at one point dressing her in a filmy nightie that turns almost transparent when she stands before a bright window — she's a living, breathing ode to Hammer Horror heroines of yore.
Arterton is particularly wonderful in a scene in which Clara's 19th-century self learns that her newly acquired bloodthirst means she's become part of a brotherhood that has hitherto forbidden women to join. "We are the Pointed Nails of Justice," one of the blowhard blood brothers informs her, and she rolls her eyes. They may be walking around in an overgrown comic book, but she's not. In her world, blood is the breakfast of champions, though even she has principles when it comes to whom she will or won't kill. In Byzantium, this vampire stuff is serious business. But it's also the stuff of romance, and not just the teenagers-at-the-mall kind. You don't have to be a kid to find love. Maybe when you're 200 or so, it will come to you, too.