Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Byzantium (2012) & Dean Spanley (2008)

In a recent post I praised the way the Anglo-Irish film The Daisy Chain offers a straight take on the idea of fairy changelings, because the central idea - no matter quaint it may seem - is inherently horrific. Well, it so happens that I watched another couple of films the in weeks following that also take old-school supernatural notions seriously - albeit in very different ways.

First up, Byzantium. This is director Neil Jordan's third venture in shadowy realms. I wasn't too impressed with Interview With the Vampire, and can't remember if I've seen High Spirits. Third time seems to be the charm, though, as Byzantium is a remarkable film, combining an authentic Gothic feel with an absorbing contemporary thriller, and finding time to tackle a bit of ill-starred romance.



Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan star as (apparently) sisters Clare and Eleanor. The opening sequence leaves us in no doubt that they are not ordinary young women, and that some form of 'authority' is on their trail. Fleeing a grotty council estate they arrive in a run-down British seaside resort, where Clara (adopting the street name Camilla, perhaps as a nod to Le Fanu) immediately sets out to make money by prostitution. However, her first punter turns out to be a lonely man whose mother has just died, leaving him the hotel of the title.

The Byzantium is a bit of old shabby-genteel splendour, and Clara persuades Noel to let her set up business there i.e. run a brothel. She recruits her girls by the simple expedient of killing the local pimp. Meanwhile, gentle Eleanor seeks out volunteers who are ready to die. Unequipped with fangs, these vampires kill by opening a blood vessel with a sharp nail. But, thanks to a series of flashbacks and Eleanor's obsessive writings, it is clear that they are supernatural entities. Things get very complicated when Eleanor begins to fall for Frank, a fragile young man who - thanks to cancer treatment - has anticoagulants in his veins...

Without giving too much away, Byzantium is an intriguing take on vampire lore, and (like The Daisy Chain) offers an Irish Gothic twist to the basic question - where do the undead originate? The Regency-era backstory is an interesting corrective to all those nice Jane Austen serialisations, stressing as it does the brutality and misogyny of the times. For much of the film I was rooting for Clara, amoral and dangerous though she is, simply because the men ranged against her - vampires or otherwise - were such a lot of shits.

At one point we catch the Byzantium girls watching an old Hammer film, perhaps to underline the point that this story is not going to develop conventionally. And it doesn't. There is no Twilight stuff about vampires as superior beings, either. There is a lot of violence, with historical thuggery counterpointing modern clashes in lap-dancing clubs and fairgrounds. But there is still a hint of optimism, of the possibility of good, amid what is the bloodshed and mayhem.

Vampires are a horror take on the Christian notions of resurrection and immortality through the magical properties of blood. In some Eastern faiths reincarnation takes the place of eternal life, raising some interesting questions. Dean Spanley is one of the few Western films I know of that takes reincarnation seriously, albeit within the context of a quirky period drama. The film is also a rare example of an adaptation of a work by Lord Dunsany. As I stumbled across on the BBC I had no idea what it was about. As the story unfolded I was drawn in, feeling rather delighted that such a story got to the screen at all.

The setting is Edwardian London. Peter O'Toole plays Horatio Fisk, a troublesome old man who does not get on well with his son Henslowe (Jeremy Northan). Son visits father every Thursday, and they fail to talk about the death of Henslowe's brother in the Boer War, or the subsequent death of his grief-stricken mother. O'Toole's 'rude old buffer' routine stays just on the right side of farcical, and a sharp script generates some very amusing moments. But this is a story about loss and the suffering it brings.

Enter Dean Spanley (Sam Neill), an apparently dull clergyman who the Fisks run into by chance at a talk given by the Swami Nala Prash, played by Art Malik. The Dean seems oddly concerned with the question of whether pets as well as people are reincarnated. Later, Fisk Jnr. encounters the Dean again, in odd circumstances, and tries to befriend him. He recruits a colonial wheeler-dealer, played by Bryan Brown, to procure the Imperial Tokay the Dean loves. The rare wine seems to induce an odd state of reverie, in which Dean Spanley recalls a very different existence...

It's all wildly improbable, but the Edwardian setting and some excellent performances make this film very entertaining and something more than light entertainment. The climax, when Dean Spanley helps old Horatio come to terms with his grief (as a clergyman should, of course), manages to be comical, fantastical, and yet wholly convincing.


4 comments:

Mark Fuller Dillon said...

If you've not seen Neil Jordan's first horror film, THE COMPANY OF WOLVES, then I recommend it with urgency. Angela Carter wrote the script, and based it on several of her stories.

valdemar said...

You know, I can't remember if I have seen it - one of the perils of ageing. Certainly some scenes are lodged in my brain. Anyway, it's worth seeing more than once.

Oscar Solis said...

We saw Dean Spanley and I must say that last bit where Sam Neill tells his story was extremely moving. It is a scene that once seen will stick in your mind as a pleasant bit of filmmaking.

I second Mark's The Company of Wolves recommendation. One of the best dream films ever.

Hav Byzantium in the queue.

Martin Roberts said...

I have to agree with you in regards to Byzantium a very good film indeed. Sadly, I missed Dean Spanley by a few hours, it had been removed from the iPlayer by the time I got round to looking it up.