In "Byzantium," mother Clara and her 16-year-old daughter Eleanor flee members of the vampires' heretofore-exclusive brotherhood into which Clara has forced her way 200 years ago with theft of a precious map. With the focus on two women vampires, director Jordan and screenwriter Moira Buffini (adapting her play) boast (in press notes) of creating progressive feminist representations. In fact, they squandered a golden opportunity, for the women collapse into the tired sexist stereotypes of the virgin and the whore.
Throughout the film, Clara using sex to seduce, manipulate, and sometimes kill her male victims, an insult to the men who so easily and stupidly succumb as well as to the women's abandonment of astute intelligence to achieve goals. That's an especially disappointing surrender to sexist ideas given that the women do drive the plot, show resourcefulness and strength, but also desperation and frailty. Given the considerable acting ability of Saoirse Ronan as Eleanor and Gemma Arterton as Clara, it's clear both could handle a challenge beyond the overwrought mother-daughter dynamic. Ultimately, the sexual appeal, insisted upon in dress and action, is at odds with the agency of the women.
Seamlessly interwoven with flashbacks, the story is skillfully presented with these immortals moving about in daylight, sleeping in beds, and foreswearing traditional clichés. "Byzantium" does slyly nod to vampire history, notably invoking Carmilla, the first female vampire. The title comes from the name of a guesthouse where a distraught Noel offers Clara refuge. Adding resonance, the title also invokes the legendary ancient Greek city and William Butler Yeats' poem.
Shallow focus shots dominate Sean Bobbitt's beautiful cinematography, emphasizing the characters. Superb art direction dictates a different look for 19th versus 21st century scenes, and one grisly scene, early in the film, confronts the horror. "Byzantium" adds another chapter to the vampire lore, but it doesn't liberate its women.
At a Landmark Theatre.