“Pointed Nails of Justice:” Two Vampires Take on Centuries of Patriarchy and Colonialism in Neil Jordan’s “Byzantium”

By Christopher Burke

In many ways, Byzantium stands in stark contrast to the sensibilities of Neil Jordan’s other, better known vampire movie, Interview with the Vampire. Where Interview takes snapshots of periods throughout the long history lived by the protagonist Louis, Byzantium focuses much more on struggles in the present, adding backstory from a few brief but crucial events during the early lives of the two main characters. The oppressive heat of the American South is exchanged for the windy chill of the British coast. A life of decadence is exchanged for a marginalized, hand-to-mouth life of constant material struggles that largely overshadow the characters’ vampire problems. The two principal vampires are no longer men but women, and gone is the homoeroticism so typical of vampire stories. Instead of the oranges and browns of fire and dirt that characterize much of Interview’s ambience, Byzantium presents us with alternations, linked to character, between the drab grays of coastal Britain and the neon-on-black spectacles of nightlife and decaying boardwalk entertainments.

(“Look forward, not back.”)

When Byzantium opens, a young woman tells the audience, “My story can never be told. I write it over and over wherever we find shelter. I write of what I cannot speak–the truth…and then I throw the pages to the wind…” As she finishes, the camera focuses on her writing out “The End.” Eleanor quickly and immediately links the concepts of a narrative beginning and end to one another in a manner that parallels the death/birth of human/vampire transition, along with several other pairs of opposed images and themes throughout the film. This kind of binary is carried through also in terms of interpersonal conflict between the two main characters, so directly opposite one another in most ways, but it goes further by linking the personal to the political, creating a clear framework of social struggle between powerful and powerless that shapes the story at an even more fundamental level than the opposing forces of Eleanor (Ella), our teenage narrator, and Clara, whom we eventually learn is her mother despite their somewhat close apparent age.

Eleanor’s strongest compulsion is for honesty and to share her story (a tendency we later see disrupting Clara’s necessary deceptions). We learn that she has been living solely with her mother for most of her life and can share nothing with anyone, on pain of their death at the hands of Clara. Soon after we meet Eleanor, an elderly man speaks to her and indicates he has been reading her story carried by the wind, and he has pieced together a degree of understanding of her supernatural nature. He seeks an end to his own life, and Ella returns to his house with him at his request, where several key themes of the story are laid out in quiet dialogue. He shares the fact that he has lived his whole life without telling a woman–who happens to have been married to his brother–that he loves her.

The polite and solemn discussion between Eleanor and the elderly man is soon interspersed with club music, flashing lights, and a young woman we learn is Clara giving a lapdance to a man in a club. Very quickly, she’s chased out of the building, taking care to grab some unpaid wages out of the till, by a man pursuing her. He eventually captures Clara and takes her back to her apartment while we return to Ella’s conversation, in which the elderly man shares an old childhood tale about the revenants that priests used to tell him: beings that were neither alive nor dead. Ella obtains his consent and then proceeds to puncture a blood vessel, drinking his blood until he dies. However, she is conscious at all times of his dignity, and it is a relatively peaceful end. Meanwhile, Clara adopts a subservient tone toward her male captor at the apartment, lulling him into letting down his guard, and then brutally decapitates him with a cord in a blood-soaked spectacle that is perhaps the most graphic scene of violence to be found in the movie. In this first act, the film has already foregrounded the ways in which consent and violence form a division between these two women characters and foreshadowed the importance of storytelling as liberation. 

In the first half hour, we also learn that the elderly man’s description of revenants is applicable to Eleanor and Clara not so much in the sense of the undead and monstrous but rather with regard to the fact that they’ve been bouncing desperately from one situation to another, struggling with both material needs and the constant threat of the mysterious Brotherhood pursuing them. Ella frequently points out that their life of precarity with her mother engaging in unstable sex work is no life for anyone to live, and she is deeply lonely. There is a dreariness to their lives not just because of their immortal condition placing them on a different timescale from humans they must coexist with but also due to the numerous axes along which they are marginalized and prevented from living a life of their choosing, making them underdogs not just in the shadowy patriarchal vampire society that exists but also in the human world they must still negotiate to obtain material needs. All these things are deeply entwined, as indicated in the first act when the Webbs must torch their apartment to destroy evidence of the dead man and leave with only what they can carry. They’re forced to go back out on the road, hitchhiking in search of shelter and other needs to a beach town some distance away. Vampirism, it turns out, is insufficient protection from capitalism.

Exploitation: Life on the Run

When we first meet Clara, she is soon running for her life, but there is a brief shouted exchange in which she demands the two weeks’ pay she is owed. “You’re not on the books. What pay?” answers a man in charge. Rather than becoming absorbed in the long stretches of history and decadence of immortality that forms the greater portion of Interview with the Vampire, Byzantium is far more concerned with the precarity of the present: specifically, the constant struggle to keep up with the material needs while living as a person marginalized from not just one but two societies: human and vampire. The social dynamics of the human world here are largely mirrored in the mysterious, patriarchal vampire Brotherhood that later informs her that there are no women among them, and that she is to be banished after having endured years of forced prostitution initiated by a powerful man.

Survival is always at the front of Clara’s mind, but although she has briefly had other occupations in the past, we later hear the man who forced her into prostitution, Captain Ruthven, tell her that he has “given” her her life, which she later describes as “wretched,” by pressing her into life in the brothel. Little could he have known that it would be a “life” that lasts centuries. In the backstory, she becomes pregnant at the brothel, leaving the baby (Eleanor) at an orphanage with monthly payments for food and shelter and reclaiming her years later. Clara’s sense of motherhood is strongly tied to this ability to provide, specifically in the context of the only occupation she knows for most of her life, shouting at Ella during an argument: “I put money on the table. That’s what mothers do!” Ella has visible scorn for the work, or at least for being around it. “Why don’t we find another way?” she asks in the middle of the film, by which point there is a clear implication that she means more than just a job change. However, the two are locked in an unresolved conflict between past and present, and it’s not until undergoing several critical changes that they’re able to move forward.

Vampirian Dialectic: Thesis/Antithesis

Contradictions and binary forces inhere to Byzantium not just for the purpose of interpersonal conflict but more importantly to build a connection from the personal to the political and make a broader commentary about conflict between social categories across lines of power and marginalization. Clara has committed a transgression by stealing a “gift” for Captain Ruthven that has given her immortal life, and the vague Brotherhood of men who know the secret of the island conferring vampiric abilities view her as “base,” an aberration among their kind in ways that happen to align considerably with the patriarchal values of the human world. She is banished because she’s a woman, because she’s a harlot, and because she is of low birth. In contrast, these are powerful men not just in terms of supernatural ability but in terms of wealth and social standing. Moreover, the claiming of the uninhabited island itself as a secret of the Brotherhood aligns with the violent colonialist forces present in the form of Captain Ruthven, who pressed her into prostitution, and Darvell, a junior soldier who tries halfheartedly to warn Clara about Ruthven to no avail and himself brings back the secret of vampirism to give to the Captain.

At other points too the violence of the Brotherhood is linked to British colonialism, with specific mentions of putting down an uprising in Ireland as an event that led to Darvell falling ill and the Brotherhood revealing itself to him with a proffered “cure.” Indeed, the waterfall on the island that changes to blood upon completion of the vampire ritual seems at least partly informed by the idea of the hunt for a Fountain of Youth and other such mythical places largely constructed of exoticism and Othering, the pursuit of which was often ample justification for violence. It is cursed, according to the oarsmen who take Ruthven and Darvell there. The Brotherhood’s language is at all times concerned with of inclusion and exclusion, with the apparent Brotherhood leader introducing himself to Darvell by referring to him as “my son.” Meanwhile, nearly every mention of Clara features an insulting term about her womanhood or sex work.

Violence: Birth/Death

For both Clara and Ella, their births into life as vampires came about as a result of traumatic and oppressive violence against them, followed by illness that was in at least one case deliberately inflicted as a means of using one woman to get revenge against another. Their own uses of violence, however, oppose one another quite starkly due to their differing life experiences. Targets of Clara’s violence are, unless a matter of secret containment, always agents of patriarchal oppression–pimps, Brotherhood members hunting her, and so on–while occasions on which Ella inflicts death on someone are characterized by a deep concern for their consent, generally ending the lives of the elderly expressing their desire for an end. “The world will be more beautiful without you in it,” she whispers to a drunken pimp she seduces and kills. 

When we learn the backstory of Clara’s first encounter with the Brotherhood and subsequent banishment, she states quite clearly: Despite her ethical principles, Ella still views her own acts as monstrous and “ruthless.” It’s also important to note another contrast that coexists with this one: Ella’s acts of killing are not so directly motivated by survival and fear for her life. Although she would eventually perish without blood, her death scenes are characterized by quiet and contemplation, peaceful conversations. Clara’s kills are bloody spectacle and motivated by desperation and survival, often accompanied by a righteous anger in having successfully turned the tables on someone who wants her dead and operates from a position of greater power and resources. 

Clara vs. the Brotherhood

The catharsis afforded by these acts of violent retribution, usually after a suspenseful build-up as contrasted with Ella’s peaceful kills, lends the film some of the sensibilities of a rape revenge film: after all, Clara was raped and coerced into prostitution, setting all this into motion in the first place, and the men she kills are generally in some way part of the same social infrastructure that enabled those traumatic acts of violence to take place. Revenge for Clara, though, is not as primary a motivator so much as a happy coincidence when it happens while she’s trying to survive or protect Ella. As she’s questioned at her first encounter with the Brotherhood and they indicate clearly that she won’t be welcome among them, they ask how she will use the gift she has acquired, to which she replies: “to punish those who prey on the weak. To curb the power of men.” She is clearly thinking beyond her own personal circumstances and eschewing the notion of simple revenge, framing her rebelliousness as a struggle against unequal social relations. Her response prompts the suggestion that they kill her, but their code is so strict that they are bound to let her live unless she breaks it. ‘We have no choice,” Savella states. Once Clara turns Eleanor into a vampire, the code has been broken, for women are prevented by their code from creating vampire life, another juxtaposition with her role as human mother.

Darvell had been tasked with finding a suitable recruit for the Brotherhood “of good blood who appreciates what we do”, which was to be Ruthven until Clara stole the map. When she asks what they do, she’s given the cryptic answer, “We are the pointed nails of justice.” The phrase takes on a dual meaning on both sides of the vampire conflict in the forms of Savella’s sword, Byzantium, with which he plans to execute her, and in the long pointed thumbnails the women use to kill given the absence of vampire teeth in this film’s lore. Toward the end of the film as her panic for Ella’s endangered life approaches the film’s climax, the verbiage she has used throughout the film to describe her rule that no one be told of their vampire secret escalates considerable, and she begins to reproduce the pathological rigidity of patriarchal order that underlies the Brotherhood’s principles, just with her own rule for Ella. As Ella, trapped in an elevator, panics and pleads on behalf of Frank, her friend/boyfriend, while Clara goes to kill him, Clara sinisterly tells her “There is a rule we live by and you broke it!”

During these later moments, the rigid authoritarianism of the Brotherhood is highlighted even further when Darvell says, following the death of Savella, “the Brotherhood is strong, unchanging.” We’re reminded of the manner in which the first death scene was punctuated by a Brotherhood member stating in the audience’s first glimpse of them: “I feel at great peace, as though order is about to be restored” (via the execution of the women vampires they seek). She makes sure to adopt a subservient posture and tone, referring to him as ‘sir’ in a humble voice, and lulls him into complacency. “Truly you’re base,” he says. To the vampire Brotherhood, her “baseness” is inextricably entwined with her gender, class, and sex work, inherently inferior according to their rules and traditions mostly paralleled by human society.

It’s critical to emphasize Ella’s antipathy to violence, seeking consent of the people she feeds on at all times and allowing her need to be slaked primarily as an intended liberation from suffering. The subject of consent is present in most any vampire story, often in the question of whether or not to turn someone or in the desire of a human to submit to same, often exchanging something presumably essential of their humanity for immortal life and other abilities. In Byzantiums focus on underground sex work and violence against women, the narrative use of consent takes on a sociopolitical dimension beyond the specifics of these characters; it is thoroughly tied to colonialist violence and collective subjugation of women and sex workers, and care is taken to show ways in which this occurs in both official and underground expressions of it. 

Apart from the horror of the act itself, rape is also a death sentence in some cases, as Ruthven deliberately infects Ella with a terminal disease, thus necessitating Clara’s intervention to turn Ella into a vampire. Similar too was Clara’s vampire origin: raped and forced into prostitution, at some point picking up a terminal disease that likely came from the brothel and appears to be tuberculosis. In the violence against Ella, Ella is further objectified in that the crimes against her are primarily for the purpose of hurting Clara as personal revenge for the theft of the map revealed later in the story. Ruthven tells Ella she’ll “be a child no longer,” and given that she remains the same age from then on, there is another in-between state between childhood and adulthood (not simply adolescence) that calls to mind the story of the revenants.

Noel provides a pointed contrast to the pimps, exploitative club owners, and ruthless vampire sect. A would-be client of Clara’s, he goes in search of sexual gratification but immediately breaks down into tears over his mother, who has recently passed away. He’s kind but also a pushover, and it turns out he has inherited a guesthouse named “Byzantium” that’s currently vacant. Clara uses flattery and deceptions, the only tactics seemingly available to her, to obtain permission to stay there with him. She is accustomed to performing for men and keeping them placated, and she employs language that is as directly patriarchal as the Brotherhood’s but for her own purposes. “We’re damsels in distress! He’s a knight in shining armor!.” she tells Eleanor. Her need to survive is a clear justification, but she also distinctly pushes against his own boundaries frequently, all while Ella is out trying to obtain consent from people, so she can establish a small brothel here and get back on her feet. Clara takes care to note that it won’t be run by men, but ultimately Noel tells them he’s going to put a stop to it out of a sincere concern that it’s harming Eleanor. In contrast to the other men of the film, he always contextualizes his objection without needing to insult or debase Clara by saying he understands why she’s doing that work.

Byzantium: End, Beginning

In the word ‘Byzantium’ we have representation of the past and of death by execution in the form of Savella’s sword. It’s also used for the purpose of life-saving shelter and transition into a hopeful future, albeit a deeply uncertain one. Savella, an ostensible leader of the Brotherhood, tells Clara, “This blade is from Byzantium. My souvenir of the Crusades.” The zealous and violent conquest sought by the Crusades as represented by Savella is linked via the Brotherhood’s connections to Darvell and Ruthven to the colonial conquests perpetrated by Britain and to the oppressive social relations, both official and unofficial, that marginalize Clara and Ella from the earliest parts of life on up to the film’s present day. They have been living hand to mouth at the fringes of society for centuries, primarily on sex work that is viewed with contempt both by the Brotherhood pursuing the “aberrations” that are our protagonists and also by “decent” human society, making them all the more vulnerable to violence and exploitation.

But “Byzantium” is used symbolically in other ways that connect the film’s themes, such as through the framing of the word as an image rather than as spoken text. All throughout, we’ve been hearing phrases referring to endings and beginnings, death and rebirth, etc. The “Byzantium” sign that adorns Noel’s guesthouse at which they temporarily reside stands out in yellow neon in the darkness of its neighborhood and offers their only glimpse of hope when Noel allows them to stay there. In a crucial moment, Clara overlooks the street where Ella converses with Frank, whom Clara is worried knows too much. She’s carefully framed from a balcony in which the letters ‘Z’ and ‘A’ from the word appear sequentially, referring subtly to another ending followed by a beginning as Ella struggles to build a connection with Frank through the sharing of her story.

By the time we later learn the other significance of “Byzantium,” Clara, Ella, and even Darvell have undergone crucial changes in contrast to the pointedly unchanging nature of the Brotherhood, and without all three any efforts at a future seem likely to have been doomed. At Clara’s first encounter with the Brotherhood, at which she is described as an “aberration” to be banished, she looks to the one man who has spoken up for her interests and asks, “Will you not speak for me?” In that crucial moment, Darvell declines to do so, echoing his halfheartedness earlier when he ineffectively warned her not to go with Ruthven, setting all these events in motion. In the finale it’s revealed that it’s not quite so simple, and Darvell has been keeping an eye on them from afar over all the years they’ve been on the run, working in the background to protect them from his brothers who seek to execute her for the crime of creating another vampire (another woman vampire, at that). In the final scenes, after understanding that she has put Clara’s life at risk by treating the spread of knowledge by Ella with a similar rigid enforcement that stands in parallel to the view of law and order brought by the brotherhood. Clara takes pains to describe that her past tendency to show mercy was a mistake, demonstrating a notable similarity to comments by Savella about strictly enforcing the Brotherhood’s code, which seems as arbitrary, inscrutable, and overly determined by history as many of the same inequalities of power that exist today.

Being a vampire has been constructed to be synonymous with being a man; a woman vampire is an aberration, an exception to the norm. It’s important to also read this in the context of the colonialism that forms the backdrop of Clara’s birth as a vampire: the secret island “belongs” to no one, and yet its ownership is claimed by a brotherhood the face of which is primarily a British soldier and former crusader. It isn’t vampirism that saves the day so much as an act of solidarity in which Darvell goes against his own interests as a vampire and man. By killing Savella and saving Clara, Darvell removes himself from the Brotherhood, fracturing it to some degree as a collective and putting himself at great risk: something he previously lacked the courage or conviction to do at other crucial moments in the past. This act places him in solidarity with the “aberrations” and forces a change in dynamics, taking away an important member of the brotherhood and forming a new social group tentatively with Clara, which furthermore coincides with Ella’s ability to move forward in search of some kind of new life with Frank.

Clara finally sees how her overprotectiveness has constrained life for Ella, while the movie also makes clear that Ella’s insistence upon consent and nonviolence is, like peace movements given cover by militant groups with overlapping goals, to some degree made possible by Clara’s revolutionary tendencies. Early in the film, the elderly man whom Eleanor euthanizes describes revenants, a term typically associated with the undead, in a way that makes clear a large portion of this film is more concerned with the two finding a way to live a safe and fulfilled life instead of bouncing from one desperate situation after another with lives in the shadows that are dependent upon lies and withholding their true selves from others. What Ella wants is companionship, while Clara primarily uses companionship transactionally until the end, in which it’s suggested that she and Darvell might have a future together of some kind that is deeper than any we’ve seen Clara pursue. In parallel to Ella’s tendency to toss her autobiographical writings outside, she concludes the narration of the life story she has been reiterating by telling the audience she’s throwing it to the wind, and “a new one begins.” As yet she has never had a romantic relationship or even a real friendship, so it seems she is no longer to be thought of as a revenant. Her life has been dominated by the parallel oppressions that preexisted her and to some degree her success in sharing her story is some kind of small liberation from that. Darvell tells Ella in the film’s harrowing conclusion, “You have been condemned from the moment Clara made you.” However, in the film’s closing moments with Frank, there is a sense that liberation may be possible after all.

Synthesis: Storytelling, Soul

(“She gave me the story I can never tell.”)

When it comes to sex and romance, Byzantium’s romance is largely de-eroticized and sex is largely deromanticized, transactional. There is some desire, of course, between Ella and Frank, but it’s very cautious and unconsummated physically. The audience primarily observes the development of a platonic relationship more so than a physical one. Their conversations are characterized by a hesitant longing but focus on their life stories (Frank’s, too, is one of precarity and illness) and conflicts that arise when Frank disbelieves the tale that Ella, who wants nothing more than to be heard and believed, has been sharing with him and the audience. Clara, in contrast, seems never to have an honest moment with a man until the end in her conversation with Darvell, and at all times she is accustomed to performing for a male gaze in order to survive. The same appears true of her sexual encounters, never seeming to pursue anyone out of a sincere desire, though we’re left to assume that could be possible in the film’s closing moments. She also never tells her own story to anyone but Ella, in contrast to the latter’s tendencies to be unable to avoid slipping inflammatory truths into conversations around Clara.

(“Let it go.”)

For Ella, telling her story is liberatory and represents an escape from what she sees as a suppressed life alluded to with the revenant anecdote early in the film. When she narrates, “I like solitude. I walk, and the past walks with me.” it comes across as a potent revenant image, but one that’s only partly true. Later, when talking about Ella’s birth as a vampire, Clara says “It’s in the past, Ella! Let it go!.” Given the thematic breadth of the film, there is a sense that neglecting to account for unresolved conflict in the forces of history prevents them from moving forward, but so too does an exclusive focus on the present that characterizes Clara. It is only in their synthesis and mutual understanding at the conclusion that there seems to be the possibility of a decent future for each on their own terms, or at least more so. Contrary to her words about solitude, though, Ella appears to be accustomed to and somewhat comforted by solitude and indeed accompanied by the past, but everything else about her motivations says the opposite regarding her need for a social life and prospective future. She doesn’t understand herself well enough yet to recognize this, as underscored by remarks later heard in a writing class. It’s telling that one of the few forms of expression available to her, musical performance, is what prompts Frank to introduce himself to her, setting in motion a new relationship that will be the first of its kind for her.

We never learn much detail about what one must give up when becoming a vampire through the ritual at the blood waterfall island, but we do get a brief reference to the notion of losing a soul, although what that means is unclear. For Ella, forced to live in secrecy, the ability to tell her story is given a significance such that it seems to stand in for the idea of the soul or her humanity. Even as she tears her written pages and tosses them to the wind, Ella’s need to communicate is underlined by the eventual conversation Clara has with the Brotherhood, in which her own word is insufficient against banishment, when she asks Darvell, “Will you not speak for me?” Clara’s story as a woman, a harlot, and an impoverished worker is insufficient; a man’s word is required but of course is withheld. Perhaps this is why Clara never seems forthcoming about her past. 

Sharing her story is one thing Ella feels incomplete without, and this incompleteness is drawn as a parallel to the human soul she has purportedly given up when born as a vampire. The pursuit of sharing her life seems as strong a compulsion as the need to survive. Indeed, we’re invited to think of her loneliness and lack of connection to others as one of the meanings behind the elderly man’s speech about the revenants drifting through life in the opening act. One of the first contradictions we’re introduced to in the film is narrated to us directly by Eleanor. She has a deep need to tell her life story, which she proceeds to share with us, but she’s compelled to destroy it over and over again by Clara’s strict insistence on secrecy, on pain of death to anyone who learns of their vampire natures. What is life for Ella is death for others for reasons beyond her mere need for blood.

The bright neons and club music of Clara’s modern world is pointedly contrasted with the bleak grays and shadows and melancholic piano music of the spaces that Eleanor wanders, and these contrasts of ambience reflect the different motivations behind their acts of physical contact with humans. Eleanor’s attempts are that of an adolescent stuck in that age forever: shy, inexperienced, and foregrounded by concerns with consent and sharing life stories with those whose life she takes. These brief moments are insufficient, however, because they’re moments of death. Her loneliness runs as deep as her experience navigating adolescent relationships is shallow, and this perpetual catch-22 is what makes her life feel like that of a revenant, a frustrated and repressed figure drifting lifelessly through life from one temporary home to the next with no social bonding. However, it also manifests in the form of lashing out and engaging in bitter disputes with Clara, constantly magnifying the wedge that seems to have existed between them for a long time and ultimately resulting in their parting of ways. Adding fuel to the fire, Clara’s world is one of illusion, of fictions, of a darkness hidden beneath the bright lights. At all times when speaking with men, she wears an expression tailored to what they want to hear in the voice they want to hear it in, so that she can get what she needs to survive. The need of the men that Clara encounters to hear a particular story, on pain of angering them or losing out on potential needed income, is a contrast to Eleanor, whose steadfast insistence on being truthful and forthright extends from her requirement of consent from those she kills. She easily lures men to their death when needed. 

(“I Am”)

Being forced to live with an unutterable truth has many echoes in the historical suppression of women’s art and other speech, particularly those with the same concerns for equality as expressed in the film. It’s notable that she’s finally successful at sharing it with a man, while Clara’s life is saved by a man acting in solidarity across the dividing line between Brotherhood and Womanhood. Throughout the film, the audience frequently witnesses Ella’s writing crumbled and tossed to the breeze like so much history forgotten or forcefully kept from view by rules as arbitrary as the “code” here. When she summons the courage to write down her story once again, ostensibly for a school assignment, Frank believes it to be fiction, despite her insistences. “I wrote it for you,” she tells him, and the words bring the sense that there is nothing much more special to her that she could do to bond with someone. 

The instructor of the class they briefly share tells them: “Stories are a fundamental human need. A uniting thing. Come to understand ourselves and the world.” In the sense that Ella has lost her soul, her humanity, her ability to share her story seems to restore them to some degree in the language of film. Frank’s own isolation is underscored by his tale of an imaginary friend that he used to have, which was found to have an apparent supernatural connection to a deceased baby who was real. The assigned essay’s title itself is an effective, subtle underscoring of the storytelling theme: “I Am,” which is a complete sentence while feeling provocatively empty of predicate and future. The instructor states, “and there’s only one rule. It has to be true.”

During a conversation that immediately follows between Frank and Ella, there is an interesting convergence of camerawork and foreshadowing that places the two on top of an upside down boat on the beach. The camera slowly pans around them in a near half-circle instead of focusing on cuts between individual faces of the speaking character as in most dialogue. Later, the “consummation” of this successful truth-telling occurs in the form of the two of them venturing by boat to the mysterious island to turn Frank into a vampire, closing in on a suggested future for them. Frank believes her at that point and has put his life at further risk for her, rejecting the world of his parents, like Ella has, in exchange for the hope of something new. We’re reminded of Ella’s observation that once upon a time there was nothing on the beach they’ve returned to, but now there are buildings. Something new. Even Ella’s physical forms of communication are bound up in contradictions learned from her life of struggle. When Frank says “nice to meet you” and extends his hand, she shakes it as if in greeting while simultaneously saying “goodbye,” and then turning to walk away. When Frank is skeptical of Ella’s claims that some people want death as a release from suffering, he simultaneously invites her to his birthday in a more humorous but subtle combination of images of death and life.


Byzantium creates a moving, complex interpersonal drama, but it builds a world and critique that extends well beyond that and into the forces of history, how they shape the present, and the deeper need for connections both in terms of personal desires and in terms of social struggle. As all effective speculative fiction does, it uses a backdrop of the supernatural to illuminate problems of the real-life present and the history that attaches itself to it. As outlandish and spectacular as many of the events are, there is an honesty about the basic needs of the protagonists at a human level and how these needs act as uniting forces that can provide optimism for a better future. The real substance of the movie consists in its depiction of Clara’s and Eleanor’s struggles to survive a world that, despite its longevity in history and inclusion of the super/preternatural, is still one of material concerns immediately recognizably truthful to most people in the real world.

And as we’ve been reminded by the film, all that matters is that it’s true.

(“I don’t want to lie anymore. Something has to change.”)

Text © Christopher Burke 2022. Images © IMAGO / Mary Evans.

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