Byzantium is the best feminist film you will see this year. Yes, go off and chortle into your tea. I’ll wait. You back? Good, lets continue. It’s as much of a feminist film as it is a horror film. There’s blood splatter and girl power in equal measure. There’s oppression and injustice, and there’s two women at the centre of it all trying to combat it. As NPR’s Linda Holmes pointed out in a recent breakdown of films currently screening in cinemas, you cannot find a single one that tells a woman’s story. There are men driving cars, men from outer space, men doing an internship, men saving the world, men throwing great parties. If you want to take your friend, your daughter, your wife, your sister to see a movie about a woman (and without The Rock) there is not ONE. She adds: “What we have right now is a Hollywood entertainment business that has pretty much entirely devoted itself to telling men's stories”. Then we have Byzantium, a film adapted for the screen by an award-winning female playwright and directed by a male filmmaker who has long sided with the outsiders. This is the story of two women and yes, they are vampires, and yes, some people are going to get cut the fuck up. But Byzantium is a woman’s story and Byzantium is a masterpiece. To delve too deeply into the plot would be stealing away some of the gifts Moira Buffini has woven carefully into the screenplay adapted from her play A Vampire Story. It’s a tale that spans centuries, but in a nutshell it follows two vampires: Clara (Gemma Arterton) and her daughter Eleanor (Saorise Ronan) as they struggle to make ends meet. They aren’t living the lavish life of an immortal we’ve become accustomed to seeing in Hollywood versions. They are struggling to make enough paper to put dead on the table, largely because they’re being hunted by The Brotherhood. Clara’s existence as an immortal was never intended and she’s automatically an outcast because “there are no women among us”. She goes on to put the ‘ma’ in stigma by transitioning her daughter, which is forbidden. The pair are forced to live on the run, staying in crappy apartments and, in Clara’s case, working in crappy strip clubs and the occasional brothel.
Byzantium is a film with a big message and it’s down to two very talented women to deliver it: Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan. At 19, Ronan already has an Oscar nomination under her belt and the respect of cinephiles everywhere with her impressive filmography (lets all politely neglect to mention The Host). The role of immortal 16-year old Eleanor is perfect for her as she brings the unnatural maturity she’s been delivering in performances since she was 12. Yet if the film belongs to anyone it’s Arterton, who gives the performance of her career as a passionate, resourceful, crude and often desperate woman who will do anything to keep her daughter safe. She’s sexy and sultry, because of course she is (it is Gemma Arterton after all). But it’s the sense of desperation she manages to convey that reaches through the screen and grabs you in your emotions place. She’s a survivor, with Destiny’s Child backing track and all. The two actresses bounce perfectly off one another: Ronan quiet and seemingly uptight in comparison to Arterton’s rougher, C-bomb dropping vamp. Every daughter reaches that point when she begins to become embarrassed by her mother, it’s a universal occurrence. The way they make this work with two immortals is both humourous and affecting.
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a filmmaker in want of a good actor is in want of a Sam Riley, who delivers and then some as an empathic member of The Brotherhood. Also tremendous, and from a similar pedigree of outstanding performances, is Caleb Landry Jones as Eleanor’s love interest. Nods to excellent British character actors in Daniel Mays, Luther’s Warren Brown and The Thick Of It and In The Loop’s Tom Hollander in a (strangely) uncredited role. The work of cinematographer Sean Bobbit almost deserves a paragraph of its own. It. Is. Genuinely. Astounding. You would expect no less from the man who filmed Hunger, Shame and The Place Beyond The Pines. Yet Bobbit hasn’t had such fantastical material to play with before and he shines. From something as simple as a field of frosty cabbages to the Gothic beauty of a waterfall cascading with blood, the imagery is breathtaking. He handles strip club interiors and theme parks with a fleuro-pertise that’s reminiscent of Drive.
The crux of what condemns Clara’s turning of her daughter is not only that there weren’t supposed to be ladies allowed into the exclusive club of superior, ancient knowledge keepers known as The Brotherhood but that “women are not supposed to create”. It’s a sickening concept, not an unfamiliar one. You could add the line “women are not supposed to” at the start of many a word – vote, work, fight – and you have a sentiment that has been echoed down to us for decades. What the film spends its duration doing, however, is showing us that a woman’s ability to create is not only a powerful gift, but one of many gifts she has. Strength of conviction, for example, can by just as powerful as the gift of compassion. When Clara is first turned and she’s questioned by The Brotherhood about how she will use the gift of immortality, she looks them dead in the eye and replies: “To bring justice to those who prey on the weak and to curb the power of men”. Byzantium shows two women - with a bloody awful past - who have managed to not necessarily overcome it, but to exist with it by whatever means they can. It tells their story and, as I mentioned earlier, any film telling a woman’s story is no small beer these days.
I know, a feminist film directed by a man? Snort. But Neil Jordan is actually a perfect fit. He has long sided with the neglected, the bullied and the oppressed members of society through his exploration of homosexuality and transgender culture in films like Interview With A Vampire, The Crying Game and Breakfast At Pluto. And which body of people are more neglected, bullied and oppressed than women? Jodie Foster vehicle The Brave One touched on some feminist notions, but with the massive scope of the two central characters in Byzantium he has more of a timeline to work with. Clara was abducted and essentially sold into prostitution as a child during a time when there were no laws or – more importantly – nobody to prevent it. Men abused her for decades and when she had a daughter she did everything she could to prevent the same thing happening to her. She paid for Eleanor’s education and freedom “on her knees and on her back” so her daughter would never be the victim of the more powerful sex. If there’s any criticism to the feminism rhetoric I’m claiming this film spits like De La Soul, it would be Clara’s blatant use of her sexuality to make cash money. Even after she is freed from prostitution, she continues to prostitute herself much to the displeasure of Eleanor who implores her “there are other ways”. But Clara’s willingness to sell her body isn’t anti-feminist. Leader in modern feminist theory Caitlin Moran says that there are two questions one must ask to determine if you’re a feminist: “a) Do you have a vagina? and b) Do you want to be in charge of it? If you said 'yes' to both, then congratulations! You're a feminist.” Clara has a vagina and she is in control of it. She has the choice to try and find another source of income, but she chooses to stick with what she knows and what she’s good at: she uses her female guiles to varying degrees as either a stripper, street prostitute or, later, brothel madam.
The villains are called The Brotherhood, and rightly so. It’s an ancient organisation of old, white men deciding what is and isn’t ‘just’ in the world. Sound familiar? It’s currently old, white men deciding what is and isn’t right for women to do with their bodies at the moment. It’s old, white men deciding exactly how rapey a rape has to be before the offenders get punished. It’s old, white men deciding it’s appropriate to ask a female Prime Minister about the sexual specifics of her partner on national radio. In Byzantium, The Brotherhood are The Patriarchy. While feminists have been fighting The Patriarchy for decades in the hope of achieving equal rights, Clara and Eleanor are literally fighting the patriarchy with the limited resources they have available: their smarts, sexuality and sharp nails (this is actually a vampire thing). Yet the brilliance is Jordan and Buffini not only have The Man featured prominently in the film, they also have men. And there’s a distinct difference, as pointed out again by Moran in her book How To Be A Woman: “The Man: is the enemy – but he is not the men. You must never confuse The Man with the men. The Man is a shadowy motherfuck trying to keep us all down with regular application of The Patriarchy. The men, on the other hand, are those guys you know who are nice to snuggle up with, and are good at heavy lifting. They’re very different.” The inclusion of characters played by Riley, Landry Jones, Mays and Hollander adds depth and definition to Byzantium so that it’s very clear Clara and Eleanor are never fighting against men, they’re trying to liberate themselves from The Man (aka The Brotherhood).
There are particular aspects of the language too that are crucial for discussion. Besides Bridesmaids, you so rarely get to see a mainstream film where it’s the female characters saying the word “cunt” and referring to someone as a “cunt”. The C-bomb is dropped twice by each of its female leads, once to refer to a man and the other to refer to Clara. Cunt is the most powerful and most feminine swear word in the English language. It is a vagina, that’s what it is. Having characters with actual vaginas saying it with strength and confidence as opposed to, I dunno, Jason Statham is fan-cunting-tastic.
“What is feminism? Simply the belief that women should be as free as men.” Moran said that and it remains true. Byzantium is a powerful story well told. It’s a creepy, beautiful horror film that transcends the ‘vampire flick’ tag. Ya, it depicts two vampires, but more importantly it depicts two women who are fighting to be as free as the men of their species. Now if that isn’t a great piece of feminist cinema with a relevant message, then I’ll get back in the fucking kitchen*.
Maria Lewis - follow Maria on Twitter here: @moviemazz
*I won’t actually though, because kitchens scare me.