Movie reviews: Byzantium

“Gather me into the artifice of eternity,” pleads the narrator of WB Yeats’ ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, but Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) and Clara (Gemma Arterton) are struggling to cope with the reality of a rather prosaic immortality in Byzantium (15A).

Movie reviews: Byzantium

Directed by Neil Jordan from Moira Buffini’s play, the story opens by offering us Clara and Eleanor’s contrasting approach to gaining access to the life-giving blood: where Clara is seductive and brutal, Eleanor only reluctantly drains the life of an old man after he gives her permission to do so. The women move on to a English seaside town, and soon Clara is persuading the hapless Noel (Daniel Mays) to convert his recently deceased mother’s boarding house (the name of which gives the film its title) into a brothel. Meanwhile, Eleanor befriends Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), a young man who will sacrifice his life to understand the mystery she represents. Neil Jordan has ventured into such territory before, of course, with The Company of Wolves (1982), and Interview With the Vampire (1994), and Byzantium is a vividly realised film in which Jordan successfully blends the dark fairytale elements into a prosaic modern landscape. Arterton in particular is in marvellous form as the brash, chippy hooker who will survive by any means necessary in this viciously patriarchal world. The historical aspect of the tale is marred by stilted dialogue and too much reliance on exposition, whereas the contemporary story has far more interesting things to say about social isolation, addiction, and the desperate human need for affection at any cost. More than just another vampire flick, Byzantium offers plenty of food for thought, even if it lacks real bite.

Robert De Niro heads an impressive ensemble cast in The Big Wedding (15A), playing ageing lothario Don, whose adopted son Alejandro (Ben Barnes) is marrying Missy (Amanda Seyfried). Problems arise when Alejandro’s birth mother, a devout Catholic, arrives for the nuptials, and Don has to pretend he is still married to his long-divorced wife Ellie (Diane Keaton) — much to the chagrin of current lover, Bebe (Susan Sarandon). That’s only one of the romantic entanglements to be teased out over the course of the movie — Katherine Heigl and Topher Grace are also embroiled in their own relationship issues — which is adapted by writer-director Justin Zackham from the French comedy Mon frère se marie (2006). The sight of De Niro playing yet another amiable buffoon is not one to inspire confidence, but he’s likeable enough here as he struggles to come up to the mark as husband, lover and father. His performance sets the tone for a gently paced mix of slapstick and the comedy of embarrassment, with Keaton, Sarandon and Heigl getting the best lines. Robin Williams’ cod-Catholic priest routine might have been subversive and/or funny about half a century ago, but his turn is a rare bum note in an undemanding farce.

The Purge (15A) is a bracingly nasty piece of work. Set in America in 2020, it takes place during the course of ‘Purge Night’, an annual 12-hour period during which the ‘New Founding Fathers’ have declared that any criminal act — including murder — is not only allowed but encouraged. Barricaded into his upmarket home with his wife and family, security specialist James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) finds himself besieged by his neighbours when his son offers sanctuary to the homeless man (Edwin Hodge) they are hunting. Written and directed by James DeMonaco, the movie opens up like a standard home invasion story offering a satire on gun culture, and poses some interesting questions about the ‘cathartic power’ of violent rage (the American economy is thriving as a result of the Purge, apparently, due to the ‘elimination of non-contributing members of society’). Unfortunately, such issues are quickly forgotten when the bullets start flying, and the film evolves into what at times feels like a lengthy advertisement for the National Rifle Association. Ethan Hawke does a decent job of managing the initially smug Sandin’s descent into murderous amorality, but overall the story is a preposterous contrivance. For all of its brow-furrowing socio-political subtext, DeMonaco’s sound and fury signifies very little.

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