Neil Jordan has long been captivated by the meeting of myth and magic and storytelling with the material world of love and sex and family, from the fairytale reworking of A Company of Wolves through the folktale on the Irish coast in Ondine. Byzantium, based on a play by Moira Buffin, is his second take on the vampire legend and this one is far less traditional than Interview with a Vampire. There is blood, of course, and there is sex, but it’s less about eros than survival as an eternal in a mortal world, and as woman who dares claim the rights reserved by a cabal of men.
Clara (Gemma Arterton) walks the streets (in this case, the boardwalk of a British coastal town in the off-season) to pay the bills for herself and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), an eternal sensitive teen pouring out her soul in unread letters cast to the wind. Flashbacks tell their origins: a life of degradation at the hands of a British officer (a proudly debauched Jonny Lee Miller) in an 18th century culture of male power and class division, and a desperate attempt to escape a death sentence of disease through an ancient ritual reserved for a cabal of powerful men who ruthlessly guard the secret of immortality.
Byzantium is rich with metaphor and sexual politics, almost overwhelmingly so. It’s a Gothic tale with a twist of conspiracy and a radically different take on vampirism as ancient earth force tightly controlled by a male cabal who treat the transformation like a birthright.
Why is Neil Jordan’s latest vampire film titled Byzantium? To be sure, that’s the name of the shabby hotel where Clara and Eleanor, his downscale daughters of darkness, take refuge, and a vampire hitman does brandish a sword he claims he looted from Byzantium during the Crusades. Does Moira Buffini reference the legendary city in her play AVampire Story, which she adapted for the film? Could be, but I’d lay odds that the title is Neil Jordan’s contribution, and that the boy from County Sligo—W.B. Yeats’ old haunt—means his problematic meditation on the lives of the undead to lead us straight to “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Byzantium,” Yeats’ poems about age, time, eternity, and art.
In “Sailing to Byzantium,” Yeats, beset by age and love’s loss, imagined finding a way “out of nature” by becoming a form of art—say, a golden nightingale in fabled Byzantium that would sing of “what is past, or passing, or to come.” But once arrived in “Byzantium” (penned after “Sailing”), the poet discovers that perfect artifice disdains “all that man is, / All mere complexities, / The fury and the mire of human veins.” The city’s “blood-begotten spirits” suffer no passions and do not die; immortality simplifies all, for nothing changes or grows or decays. Yeats calls it “death-in-life and life-in-death,” the very state achieved by Jordan’s vampires in his own Byzantium.