Byzantium is director Neil Jordan's second vampire movie, almost twenty years after he received critical acclaim for his adaptation of Anne Rice's Interview With the Vampire. Byzantium is based on another celebrated source, a stage play of the same name by Moira Buffini, but follows a very different kind of vampire. Set in modern times in the town of Hastings on the English south coast, it stars Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan as Clara and Eleanor, two female vampires eking out an existence of the edges of civilization. Eleanor is sweet, introverted, and kind, only feeding on the elderly after they have given their consent. Clara is more brazen, working as a cheap prostitute in funfairs and lap-dancing clubs to make ends meet. After a fortuitous encounter with a sad-sack named Noel (Daniel Mays) who just happens to own a run-down hotel on the sea front - the Byzantium of the title - Clara tries to turn her hand to business, converting the hotel into a discreet brothel where she can work, and feed, as she needs to. Eleanor, however, despite her introversion, longs for friends, and strikes up a tentative relationship with Frank (Caleb Landry-Jones), a shy waiter recovering from leukemia. However, danger is never far away for Clara and Eleanor, and before long ghosts from their distant past come calling, revealing who they are, how they came to be vampires, and why they are being hunted...
Byzantium unfolds at a languid pace, and may not appeal to those who need their films to be more action packed. There is excitement, tension, and a small amount of gore, but for the most part Byzantium creates an oppressive mood of alienation and loneliness, filled with Eleanor's thoughtful monologues about life, and her place within it. There's also a very interesting story-within-a-story that takes place in flashback during the Napoleonic Wars, charting the two women's journey into immortality, which touches on some still prescient points and women in society and how, for far too many people, things haven't changed all that much over the last 200 years. There's a dark, ominous, vividly atmospheric quality to the film as a whole, and that translates through to Spanish composer Javier Navarrete's equally dark and atmospheric score.
Since receiving his first Oscar nomination for Pan's Labyrinth in 2006, Navarrete's career has been gradually moving more and more into the mainstream, with scores like Mirrors, Inkheart, Cracks and Hemingway & Gellhorn receiving general critical acclaim (we'll pretend that Wrath of the Titans didn't happen). He has art house sensibilities in his music, but has a knack for writing beautifully emotional, if occasionally slightly morose, themes that linger in the memory. Byzantium is a score like that; it has more than its fair share of beauty, but the moments of beauty are tempered somewhat by a great deal of slightly unsettling electronic mood-scoring that makes the album a little bit of a chore to get through.
First, though, the good bits. The most thematic parts of the score tend to deal with the historical aspect of the film, of Eleanor and Clara's lives 200 years ago, and how they became vampires. A lyrical piano theme is introduced towards the end of "Hotel Byzantium", and is explored further in cues such as "Eleanor's Dream", on menacing strings in "Ancient Knowledge", and with an expanded and quite sinister-sounding choral element and expressionistic woodwind writing in "An Empty Island" and "As Darkness Fell", hinting at the unearthly terrors to be found thereupon. A beautiful string lament, sad yet tender, appears in "Whore", and gets a further outing in the poignant "My Mother Was Dying", plaintively crying for the life the mortal Clara was forced into living. The pinnacle of the score's thematic writing is first hinted at in the bold, dramatic "My Mother Saw Her Chance", before eventually climaxing during the first moments of the rapturous "Clara Immortal", which explodes with an almost orgasmic choral outburst and more of those dark, forbidding piano textures.
There are also several important classical pieces that weave through the score, including a beautiful liturgical choral performance of the 16th century "Coventry Carol", and a sublime piano performance of Beethoven's Adagio from the Sonata in C Major Op.2 No.3 by Simon Chamberlain, and which often acts as a recurring melodic identifier for Eleanor. Cleverly, these pieces also form a significant part of the underscore proper; the Coventry Carol melody is given a ghostly makeover during the unnerving "Steal Something from Her" and in the second half of "Whore", while the intimate Beethoven piece returns to play in ironic juxtaposition to the first (chronological) meeting with Clara in "My Mother", before expanding into a lovely, sweeping string-based variation. "At School", which plays the piano adagio in counterpoint to a string performance of the Coventry Carol, is quite brilliant.
At the other end of the scale, the more grinding, crushing, buzzing electronic elements tend to underscore the women's contemporary life on the fringes of English society; cues like the "Main Title", "Hotel Byzantium", "Hunters", "Thirst" and "I'm Sixteen Forever" offset the synthesized tones against stark piano chords and harsh, dissonant instrumental textures, creating a sense of danger and oppression. Electric guitars add to a feeling of overall urban decay, with cues such as the more propulsive "No One", the unforgiving "It Would Be Fatal", the more powerful and aggressive "Blade from Byzantium", and the conclusive "Always" giving musical life to a seedy underbelly of England not usually seen in the guidebooks.
Occasionally a cue like "Secrets", the aforementioned "Eleanor's Dream", "You Came For Me" and the brooding "Love Dark" will blur the lines between past and present, with the piano and a haunting viola de gamba competing with the harsh electronics, electric guitars and creepy ghostly choral work to unnerving effect, illustrating the idea that these woman have existed, and continue to exist, through the ages. It's clever, and mirrors the tone of the film perfectly, but it's not easy to actually sit through.
And that's the problem with Byzantium as a whole, really - the fact that in order to get to the elegant, intimate orchestral parts, one has to sit and fight through all the intentionally harsh and unappealing electronica. The romantic scoring in the historical sequences, and the variations on the two central classical pieces, are quite superb, and amount to around half an hour of really lovely music. However, in regard to the guitar harmonics and the grating electronics, understanding why Navarrete wrote the score the way he did isn't akin to actually enjoying it, and many listeners will be wholly put off by these contemporary elements, which are very difficult to form any sort of emotional connection with.