Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) and Clara (Gemma Arterton) are sisters on the run from an all-male vampire brotherhood who view their existence as an abomination to their species. As Clara turns to stripping and prostitution as a means to make money for them both, the eternally 16 year old Eleanor acts as a one-woman euthanasia machine, bringing peace to the old and infirm who are ready for death. After a run-in with one of the brotherhood, the sisters hide out at a run-down beach resort, where Eleanor meets Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), a teenager with leukaemia who takes a shine to her. But even as the sister's begin to let their guard down, they're well aware that they are still being hunted.
Director Neil Jordan has sunk his fangs into vampire stories before with Interview With A Vampire, and has returned to the genre to hopefully undo the Twilight-ization of these once feared creatures. Here he has created a fantastic new world and interesting re-telling of the well-worn vampire mythology, complete with some of the lushest cinematography of his career. Finding abstract beauty within the dilapidated sea-front town, mixed in with some startling imagery snatched from the 200 year history of the sisters, Byzantium is never less than arresting.
Unfortunately, it is a bit of a mess. Over-the-top yet underplayed, fantastical yet too grounded, sinister yet ethereal; Jordan tries to have his cake and eat it too, but it just doesn't work out. The tone of the movie is all over the place, there are flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks, and we're never entirely sure if this is a movie about familial bonds, first loves or the transformation from young girl to grown woman (over-flowing fountains of blood being a beautiful but blunt metaphor for the latter).
Thankfully Jordan has two stellar actresses to smooth out the storytelling bumps and the competent male supporting cast are completely blown off the screen by this killer two-hander. Where Eleanor isn't a million miles away from characters Ronan has played before, she still brings a beyond-her-years weariness and longing that is necessary for the role to work. Better still is the gorgeous Arterton - acting past the Eastenders' accent and over accentuated cleavage - as she injects a sexual menace into every syllable and body movement.
Byzantium may end up as nothing more than a moody footnote in the history of vampire movies, as well as Jordan's own back catalogue, but it does prove to be a step in the right direction following the likes of Ondine and The Brave One.