The human-vampire romance at the center of “Byzantium” has less in common with the emotional roller coaster that is “Twilight” than with the sweetly creepy relationship in “Let the Right One In.” Like that 2008 Swedish film — remade in 2010 as the English-language “Let Me In” — “Byzantium” is about the friendship between a gawky human boy and a preternaturally poised teenage vampire girl.
She ought to be poised; she’s actually 200 years old.
The marvelous Saoirse Ronan plays Eleanor, the undead adolescent bloodsucker whose narration guides the moody and visually stylish film by Neil Jordan (“The Crying Game”). For two centuries, Eleanor has been forced to move from town to town, accompanied by her mother, Clara (Gemma Arterton), whenever too many dead bodies start piling up.
The constant relocation isn’t Eleanor’s fault. Like “Twilight’s” Cullens, Eleanor doesn’t cruelly murder humans. Instead, she gets their permission before drinking their blood, seeking out mainly the elderly and the infirm. Clara has her own idiosyncratic moral code, preying on those who would prey on the weak and powerless. Of course, the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” doesn’t apply here; she’s judge, jury and executioner.
The mother-and-daughter relationship is just as interesting as — and a lot more fraught than — the one between Eleanor and Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), the sickly teen who befriends Eleanor when she and her mom turn up at a British seaside resort, having hastily fled their last home. Eleanor has a kind of purity that her mother, who makes ends meet by turning tricks, lacks. When Clara opens a brothel in the seedy Byzantium guesthouse, playing on the lust and loneliness of Noel (Daniel Mays), the building’s sad-sack proprietor, Eleanor’s disgust with her mother is unfiltered.
Their relationship is, as they say, complicated. Flashbacks gradually illuminate a back story, pointing at long-suppressed, and incompletely buried, trauma.
Moira Buffini’s script (adapted from her play “A Vampire Story”) hints that Eleanor’s tale of vampires may be a work of fiction. The film opens with Eleanor writing, compulsively, in a diary. Later, she enrolls in a creative writing workshop, where it takes only a couple of assignments before Eleanor’s teacher (Tom Hollander) and guidance counselor (Maria Doyle Kennedy) start to wonder whether their student is in some kind of dissociative state.
It adds an intriguing patina to the story.
Unfortunately, Jordan’s direction is more literal-minded. Despite suggestions that the whole mother-daughter vampire business may exist only in Eleanor’s damaged head, the film keeps insisting otherwise. The bloody flashbacks and the mounting body count keep the story grounded in reality. Or as grounded in reality as a vampire tale can be.
Though Ronan and Jones make a cute, if morbid, couple, Arterton is less appealing. There’s a subplot about Clara being pursued by a pair of mysterious men in black (Uri Gavriel and Sam Riley). Are they cops? Vampire hunters? Vampires? That thriller element is less thrilling than the young lovers’ story.
In fact, storytelling and its healing power lend “Byzantium” its most intriguing subtext.
Vampire movies, of course, are nothing new. One scene shows Clara, Eleanor and Noel curled up for the evening in front of a television playing the 1966 cheese-tastic “Dracula: Prince of Darkness,” one of nine Dracula-themed films by the famously overwrought British film company Hammer Horror.
The joke seems to be that in 2013, it’s hard to teach an old bloodsucker new tricks. Still, “Byzantium” has a few moves that might surprise you. They have nothing to do with blood, but everything to do with the heart.
R. At AFI Silver Theatre. Contains violence, blood and gore, obscenity and sex. 118 minutes.