LOS ANGELES – “I am Eleanor Webb. I throw my story to the wind.” So says the ancient child-woman played by Saoirse Ronan in “Byzantium.”
In a sense, that’s what director Neil Jordan and screenwriter Moira Buffini do, too, allowing this moody but convoluted century-hopping reinvention of the vampire myth to drift in too many meandering directions before it finally comes together with a semblance of focus in the concluding stretch.
The film is handsomely made, shot by Sean Bobbitt with a blend of gritty naturalism and shadowy storybook fantasy, and a widescreen frame often painted with striking images. It also benefits from Javier Navarette’s lush score. But Jordan’s return to territory he traveled in “Interview with the Vampire” and to a lesser extent “The Company of Wolves” is sluggish and lacking in bite. It has neither thrills nor suspense.
Buffini makes a promising choice by taking a route closer to that of Anne Rice than of Stephenie Meyer or Charlaine Harris, respectively authors of the “Twilight” and “True Blood” series. But her screenplay for “Byzantium” lacks the clarity, depth of character and robust story sense the writer brought to “Tamara Drewe” and “Jane Eyre.”
While Buffini adapted the new film from her 2008 young adult play “A Vampire Story,” the script has more of a novelistic sweep, attempting to cover too many plot strands across two time periods and struggling to find a consistent tone. Troweling on voiceover at every turn doesn’t help.
Born in 1804 yet forever 16, Eleanor is first seen living on a drab council estate where she endures the pain of her haunted past by writing the story of her life that can never be told, disposing of it page by page. The melancholy teen kills only those who seek the release of death. She displays no visible fangs, just a retractable pointed thumbnail to make the first incision.
First described by Eleanor as her muse, Clara (Gemma Arterton), is the polar opposite of the younger girl. While Eleanor is intensely still, introspective and burdened by secrets, Clara is volatile and trashy. A lap-dancer with a temper, Clara is chased down by a mysterious agent (Thure Lindhardt), who she promptly beheads with a garrote. Obviously not for the first time, she tells Eleanor to pack for a hasty move.
They land in a sleepy coastal town where Eleanor insists they’ve been before, seeing visions of herself on the beach among a gaggle of Georgian-era schoolgirls. Clara picks up morose Noel (Daniel Mays), who has inherited a boarding house called Byzantium and run it into the ground. Passing Eleanor off as her sister, Clara moves them in, then dispatches a local pimp and recruits his girls, repurposing the old hotel as a brothel.
Eleanor, meanwhile, has formed a cautious attachment with Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), a sickly youth with stringy hair whose leukemia medication causes him to bleed profusely when injured. His fragility and proximity to death make him a perfect match for Eleanor, who shares her story for the first time, ostensibly as an exercise for a writing class. (An unbilled Tom Hollander plays the teacher who gets unwisely intrigued.)
Where the film gets seriously bogged down is in the muddy flashbacks to the same location two centuries earlier. Clara is transformed from poor waif to harlot by sinister Navy captain Ruthven (Jonny Lee Miller), despite the efforts to intervene of his kinder, gentler lieutenant, Darvell (Sam Riley). There’s much back and forth as we learn that Clara gave birth to a daughter (guess who?), placed in an orphanage while her consumptive mother kept whoring to pay for her upkeep.
We learn that Clara violated the rules of the exclusively male, class-conscious vampire order – archly named “The Pointed Nails of Justice” – whose goons have been pursuing the female outlaws ever since. But the backstory generally is far less involving than the present.