Saturday 1 June 2013

Anaemia: "Byzantium" and "Blood" (ST 02/06/13)

Byzantium (15) 118 mins *
Blood (15) 88 mins **

You could argue it was Neil Jordan who made vampires sexy again. Back in 1992, the Irish filmmaker would have been nursing The Crying Game around the awards circuit when Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula adaptation swooped into cinemas, its impact limited by smothering design and notoriously comical accents. Jordan, a gifted fabulist, not unreasonably felt he could do better. Two years later, he sunk his teeth into Anne Rice’s bestselling Interview with the Vampire, where – aided by an eyeliner-sporting Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise – he came to lay the foundations for an entire subculture.

Ever since, it’s been fangs-a-go-go. Beyond the totemic Twilight, there were animated vamps (Hotel Transylvania), small-screen vamps (True Blood, The Vampire Diaries), revivals of small-screen vamps (Dark Shadows), even droll Belgian vamps filmed in the manner of the Kardashians (2010’s Vampires). Jordan opened a vein; others leapt to feast upon it. This feeding frenzy is part of the problem with Byzantium, in which Jordan strives to reinvigorate the cycle with something new and serious – social realism – only to generate a deathly pale imitation of everything that’s come before. For true blood, read thin gruel.

Moira Buffini’s play A Vampire Story, which pre-dates Twilight, has here been seized upon as an alternative to Stephenie Meyer’s chaste bloodlessness; arterial splatter punctuates its glum view of the seaside sex trade. Clara (Gemma Arterton) descends from lapdancing to prostitution, barely keeping her pointy incisors from her clients’ crotches; each dawn she returns to Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), her introspective charge, who sets down their clan’s tangled – and, unusually for Jordan, utterly muddled – mythology in letters and essays that inform Ronan’s wearying narration.

After a centuries-long flight from a succession of male keepers and killers – framed much like abusive husbands – Clara and Eleanor have wound up at a faded coastal resort, trapped by the tides. Connoisseurs may well be reminded of Harry Kümel’s cult item Daughters of Darkness, which saw 70s glamourpuss Delphine Seyrig vamping about a drizzly Ostend, though they shouldn’t expect anything like that film’s viscerally tacky energies. If Jordan’s aim was to cut through the romance and gloss to instead chronicle the eternal tedium of the undead, he’s succeeded entirely: Byzantium remains stubbornly lifeless.

All of its bloodlines tail away. The feminist inquiry – shifting bloodsuckers versus possessive, predatory men – is compromised by the prominent positioning of the ever-pliable Arterton (St. Trinian’s) in her high heels and skimpies; True Blood’s lip-smacking salaciousness may be off the table, but half-hearted sleaze isn’t, apparently. Hammer’s sly, colourful approach is equally renounced: by including a clip of Dracula Prince of Darkness, Jordan only draws attention to his own drab staging. Completely absent is the Twilight movies’ (underrated) emotional pull: here you just don’t care for anybody on screen. They’re all Team Jacob.

Myriad, baffling sidebars clog up with actors who’d make fine vampires in less mopey and reactive ventures. Sam Riley and Caleb Landry Jones are tentatively circled as possible love interests; Tom Hollander can only flounder as an English teacher who sincerely believes Eleanor’s fey drivel is as though “Poe and Shelley had had a sick little kid”. (Buffini wishes.) Jordan, torn between satisfying mainstream tastes and attempting something more critical, seems similarly ill-at-ease: all this terminally anaemic exercise demonstrates is how vampirism as a theme has, for now, been bled dry, and that even a thoughtful creative can do nothing to revive it.

If only Blood were fresher. Here we have an overcooked TV police procedural, cheating on the intensity by forcing a series’ worth of developments into 88 minutes of film. Again, we’re by the sea – this time, up Wirral way – where detective brothers Joe and Chrissie Fairburn (Paul Bettany and Stephen Graham, betraying no obvious genetic similarities) elect to take extreme measures upon learning the man they’ve accused of killing a teenage girl is poised to walk free. When a colleague (Mark Strong) brings in a likelier suspect, the brothers are seized with pangs of conscience; the film, meanwhile, begins filling up with ghosts, demons and superfluous supporting characters.

Director Nick Murphy, whose handsome 2011 chiller The Awakening suggested a certain flair for lights-down location work, makes atmospheric stages out of the Art Deco stationhouse and one crime scene in a disused picture palace. But his actors give it more heft than the flimsy material can really bear. Bettany and Graham insistently clench their teeth and punch the walls; in their quieter moments, they do those impulsive, audience-losing things third-rate dirty cops do, like burying suspects alive in the hope of landing a confession that wouldn’t ever stand up in court. In a squad car’s backseat, Brian Cox, as the muddled Fairburn Sr., is but a plot device, mumbling through “Danny Boy” and dreaming of better scripts to come.

Byzantium is in cinemas nationwide; Blood is in selected cinemas.

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