Byzantium

Director: Neil Jordan
Writer: Moira Buffini (screenplay and play)
Year: 2012
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, Caleb Landry Jones

★★★☆☆

Neil Jordan’s latest film, Byzantium, is a spirited if convoluted return to the vampire genre that seeks to rewrite much of the old mythology.

Saoirse Ronan Byzantium

Adapted by Moira Buffini from her own play, Byzantium was shot in Hastings, a setting that is overtly rooted in an illustrious history but appears grungy and anonymous in its present condition. As in his 2009 feature, Ondine, Jordan captures his surroundings beautifully, particularly near the beginning, contrasting the timeless qualities of the environment with those that are acutely modern. As the film flickers between past and present, grand ships, pristine sand and tranquil fisherman contrast with  concrete blocks, cheap amusements and the burned-out pier, while, at the same time, nothing really changes for those who inhabit the seafront – women can be bought for a price and the tide beats on. There’s a disorientating monotony to eternal life.

Clara (Gemma Arterton) and her daughter Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) are two centuries old vampires, on the run from a mysterious brotherhood that are intent on making them suffer for their past transgressions. After Clara is discovered working as a stripper, they are forced to flee their high-rise flat and end up in a small seaside town, where Clara quickly integrates herself into the criminal underworld. She sets herself up as a prostitute and exploits a local loser, Noel (Daniel Mays), by taking over his late mother’s guesthouse and turning it into a brothel populated by desperate women from the streets.

The eternal cycle of vice and the degrading, precarious existence it leads to causes tensions between Clara and Eleanor, who are worlds apart in terms of personality. Clara is feisty, seductive and violent, prepared to kill anyone who threatens to uncover their secret and use her body to obtain whatever they need to survive. Conversely, Eleanor is passive, introspective and refuses to use violence, feeding only euthansically, on the blood of elderly people who tell her they are ready to die. They are evidently extremely close, with the bond of centuries between them, but it is increasingly apparent that Eleanor needs something more to live for than the battle for survival that Clara appears to relish.

The divisions between the two protagonists are mirrored in the makeup of the film itself, as it moves swiftly between vivid action sequences and quiet, reflective scenes, which can be slightly jarring. Flashbacks are also used heavily, causing the film to lack momentum, particularly in the early stages, as the present-day storyline is continually broken up by lengthy elucidations of the past. However, these are essential to the narrative and become progressively more engaging as the film reaches its conclusion, tying up the loose ends in the plot and expounding an original mythology that contains some impressive imagery.

Gemma Arterton Cleavage Byzantium

The problem with Byzantium is that it tries to do too much and fails to combine each of its disparate elements into an entirely cohesive whole. There are scenes in strip clubs, further education colleges, nineteenth century orphanages, postmodern seafronts, all awkwardly juxtaposed with one another, and the changes in atmosphere when the film switches between them are just too drastic. The script is bloated and needed paring down to its essentials, with more focus on the relationships that keep it going and slightly fewer lines of clunky dialogue.

The strongest element of the film is the romance that develops between Eleanor and Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), a haemophiliac who becomes attracted to her when he hears her playing the piano in a hotel restaurant. Eleanor is desperate to reveal her true identity to someone – she is continually writing down her story and throwing the pages to the wind – and he provides an outlet for her to do so. His initial disbelief about her supernatural status is well handled, while his unwavering faith in her basic goodness is touching, even when he can’t quite accept who she claims to be. The scenes in which his blood is spilled are the most visceral and moving in the film, the only moments that come close to portraying the tortuous nature of a vampire’s existence.

Jones’s performance is also the standout, bringing out Frank’s innocent curiosity and resigned fragility to create a compelling and genuinely believable character. Ronan is a haunted, withdrawn presence and her steely blue eyes are used to great effect, but her performance is a little too serious and lacking in variation. Arterton overplays her character from time to time, although she is full of zest and vigour, exuding sexuality in a way that is powerful and assertive, while Sam Riley is solid in his supporting role as the aristocratic Darvell.

Vampires are undoubtedly in vogue, although Byzantium, to its credit, strives to bring something new to the genre. The updated mythology is inventive and interesting; thumbnails extend into talons to pierce the skin and people are transformed into vampires through a meeting with their doppelgangers in an eerie island cave. It is shot well, as Jordan’s films usually are, and has plenty of interesting imagery. However, that doesn’t quite make up for the film’s structural flaws, especially as it occasionally descends into almost soap opera melodrama and the ending is something of a disappointment.

Rob Dickie

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Hanna

Director: Joe Wright
Writer: Seth Lochhead, David Farr
Year: 2011
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Eric Bana, Cate Blanchett

★★★★☆

Hanna was marketed as a reasonably conventional thriller. Fortunately, it turned out to be anything but conventional.

The title character is a specially-bred 16-year-old assassin, played by the excellent Saoirse Ronan, who has spent her entire life being trained by her father, Erik (Eric Bana), in a northern European forest. She has no experience of the outside world, knowing only what Erik has taught her, namely some impressive combat skills, verbatim encyclopedic facts, just about every language in existence, and a smattering of the Brothers Grimm. A rather drawn out opening sequence at the forest hideout establishes Hanna’s skills and character, and we learn something about her relationship with Erik. She then decides that she is ready to go out into the world, but not without first assassinating Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), the villain of the piece.

The first scene of genuine interest involves Hanna’s escape from a holding facility, which looks like a combination of Area 51 and the headquarters of a Bond villain. The score is by The Chemical Brothers, and you get the impression that the action sequences were written more for the music than the other way around. The escape scene is highly-stylised industrial grandeur, all metal ducts and looming grey blocks. Later, Erik fights a group of government assassins in a garish orange room and there is another excellent scene at a cargo dock. All could conceivably be expensive music videos. Hanna is worth seeing for the score alone.

Hanna combines splendidly over-the-top visuals with The Chemical Brothers’ block rockin’ beats

The holding facility from which she escapes turns out to be in Morocco, and there she is forced to adapt to the real world, whether this involves bonding with a holidaying family or adapting to the horrors of modern technology via a somewhat slapstick panic attack. Around this stage, I was losing patience with the film. Despite some impressive acting and cinematography, it gets rather messy. The tone shifts so frequently that you don’t know where you stand. It moves too casually between being a serious thriller, a kitsch action film and a coming of age tale. Nothing seems to be holding it together.

Surprisingly, it achieves cohesion through a combination of fairy tale elements and surrealism. The more implausible moments, such as Hanna skipping through a campsite with her new best friend, right under the noses of her pursuers, gradually make sense. Her innocence and relationship with the world become more meaningful. Cate Blanchett really comes into her own as her character is transformed from government conspirator to Big Bad Wolf, and Tom Hollander gives a fantastic against-type performance as the perverse assassin Isaacs.

The more absurd Hanna gets, the stronger it gets, and by the time the characters converge on Wilhelm Grimm’s house, an abandoned amusement park, it is very entertaining indeed. As when you enter the houses in the fairy tales, things quickly take a turn for the worse. The conclusion is menacing and very surreal. At one point I thought Marissa had turned into a deer. Why shouldn’t she have?

Hanna would have been a better film if it had kept this kind of tone from the beginning. The first hour or so only works in retrospect. The inconsistency undermines the strong acting, visuals and especially the soundtrack. But once it gets past the silliness of taking itself seriously, it becomes a very watchable fairy tale thriller.

Rob Dickie