For almost as long as film has been around, vampires have appeared onscreen in all sorts of guises, and treated with varying levels of respect. There have been evil bloodsucking bastard vampires (TV movie Salem’s Lot, Near Dark), pitied, misunderstood vampires (Let The Right One In, Interview With The Vampire), comedy vampires (Fright Night, From Dusk Till Dawn), vampires that aren’t really vampires (Martin), sexy, erotic vampires (all of Hammer’s Dracula films), and glossy haired, just walked out of a L’Oreal advert, vampires (every single Twilight film). It feels like you can’t go more than a couple of years without another undead bloodsucker gracing the big screen and in 2014 you have Jim Jarmusch’s latest offering, Only Lovers Left Alive.
Jarmusch is one of a small number of directors who only produces a film every three-or-four years, each one vastly different from the last. Whatever you think of Jarmusch and his films (Broken Flowers and Ghost Dog being his most well-known), you have to admire the man for having total creative control over his films. Pace be damned, Jarmusch has an A-list actor and he’s not afraid to keep the camera rolling and get every last drop of acting gold out of them!
Only Lovers Left Alive, as you might expect from Jarmusch, is no straightforward buckets of blood vampire film. You could barely place it in the horror genre. At no point are any necks chomped on and there is very little blood to be seen. If you’re expecting 30 Days of Night, you might want to go see that nice person at the till and get your money back. The best way to describe Only Lovers Left Alive is that it’s a romance where its two leads just happen to be dead.
Tom Hiddleston (of Loki in Thor and Avengers fame) is Adam, a centuries old vampire who is tired of his immortal life. He calls humans “zombies,” disheartened by their short-sightedness and determination to ruin the world around them. Hiddleston gives a first-rate performance, much of the film’s humour down to his droll one-liners. Another actor could have made Adam come across as petulant, but Hiddleston makes his protagonist a likeable misery.
Tilda Swinton, as Adam’s wife, Eve, is the opposite of Adam. She is a motherly figure who sees the beauty of even the smallest, most trivial things. She views people as flawed, that along with their mistakes they are also capable of doing good. Over the course of the film’s two hours, Eve tries to restore Adam back to life, to help him become the man he used to be. Swinton, despite her Oscar win for Michael Clayton, is an underrated actress, rarely mentioned in the same breath as her peers. She is one of the very best actresses working today (see her in We Need To Talk About Kevin, for one of her standout performances) and once again gives everything and more to her role.
One of the many reasons to see Only Lovers Left Alive is for Hiddleston and Swinton’s husband and wife duo, both beautiful to look at in an ageless, undead sort-of-way, they hold your attention throughout.
Mia Wasikowska deserves a mention as Eve’s “sister”, Ava. If Adam and Eve are world weary souls, then Ava is a babyish teenager trapped in a woman’s body. She takes her powers for granted, doing whatever she wants and never thinking of the consequences; Adam and Eve’s peaceful lives thrown into upheaval when she visits them. Wasikowska is genuinely unnerving, portraying Ava as this sweet princess who could snap at any moment and do something senseless and cruel.
John Hurt turns up in only a couple of scenes, yet he is wonderful and heart-breaking to watch as none other than an undead Christopher Marlowe. Marlowe is an old man, his body not as everlasting as he thought, yet he is still the infamous scoundrel who courted so much controversy, occasionally giving Swinton a mischievous smile.
All of the best vampire films take the well-known rules and bend them. In Only Lovers Left Alive, not only do vampires need to worry about sunlight or a stake through the heart, they can be killed by infected blood. Here, if a vampire drinks the blood of a drug addict or someone with a terminal illness, this will also kill them. Hiddleston and Swinton can walk into someone’s home uninvited; however they see this as bad luck, in much the same way as breaking a mirror or the number thirteen.
While Only Lovers Left Alive is no horror film, it has an eerie atmosphere thanks to Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography. Le Saux takes Detroit’s run down streets, that would look ugly during the daytime, and makes them look strangely beautiful at night. Even Adam’s house (the closest the film has to a Castle Dracula location) with its crumbling walls, filled with wires and machinery from decades back, manages to look like something from one of Grimm’s fairy tales. Tangier, Eve’s home, is a fine-looking setting, with boats lining the riverside and a labyrinth of passage ways and cobbled streets.
The only criticism you could have with Only Lovers Left Alive is the pace. I did occasionally find myself thinking that a couple of scenes could have been trimmed down, possibly even cut altogether. The film could easily lose ten minutes from its running time without being ruined.
Jarmusch’s latest won’t be for everyone; there are those out there that will loathe it, that it’s a waste of two hours. This is not your typical vampire film. If you’re looking for something at a breakneck speed with gallons of blood, you’re better off dusting off your copy of Blade. Though if you like a vampire film that plays around with convention, is intelligent, and dotted with wry, black humour, then Only Lovers Left Alive could end up being one of your favourite films of 2014. It isn’t flawless like Tomas Alfredson’s Let The Right One In (very few films are!), but is easily up there with the best of the sub-genre.
4 out of 5