And it is by a typically bleak British beach that Neil Jordan has created this florid, preposterous but watchable soap opera of the undead; it's a dark fantasy that contains a trace of his slight weakness for whimsy, but in some ways it's his most effective film for some time, adapted for the screen by Moira Buffini from her stage play A Vampire Story. The seaside town is unnamed, but it appears to be shot in Hastings, making full use of that town's eerie Graham Greeneian spectacle: the charred pier that was torched by arsonists in 2010. Its restoration may not be easy. The town may in any case decide the pier is more of a morbid attraction for sightseers and film crews the way it is.
Gemma Arterton plays Clara, a hardworking prostitute and lap-dancer with a mysterious past; she's on the run from a couple of nameless individuals and shows up at this wintry anti-Riviera with her daughter, Eleanor, played by Saoirse Ronan. They need money, of course, so Clara hangs out by the funfair and agrees a price of £50 to perform a sex act on Noel, a furtive, bespectacled, anorak-wearing businessman played by Daniel Mays. But poor Noel blubberingly fails to go through with it, because his mum has just died. Shrewd Clara elicits the information that Noel's late mother owned a run-down boarding-house-cum-B&B called Byzantium that she reckons could easily be repurposed into a lucrative seafront brothel. Meanwhile, Eleanor enrols at sixth-form college and horrifies her teacher (Tom Hollander) by making him think she must be a victim of abuse with an autobiographical writing assignment in which Eleanor claims that she and her mother are hundreds of years old. The story intercuts with sinister, occult events that took place on the same town two centuries previously, with two dashing veterans of the Napoleonic wars: Darvell and Ruthven (pronounced "Riven") played by Sam Riley and Jonny Lee Miller.
Any story about vampires set in what is recognisably 21st-century reality has to decide how to negotiate the dominance of Stephenie Meyer and her world-conquering creation, Twilight. You either ignore it, or treat it ironically, like the spoof movie Vampires Suck, which had one good line: "In the 80s, coke was all the rage; the 90s, grunge. Now it's the era of vampires." Jordan prudently ignores it, though in the real world Eleanor's teacher would not be horrified or even surprised at a pupil's essay claiming vampire status. Every girl and boy in his class would be writing a vampire confession. The teacher himself would be writing a vampire confession – and knocking it out at 99p a pop, direct to the Amazon Kindle.