Underground musician Adam (Tom Hiddleston) reunites with his lover for centuries (Tilda Swinton) after he becomes depressed and tired with the direction human society has taken. Their love is interrupted and tested by her wild and uncontrollable little sister (Mia Wasikowska).

Elegant, nocturnal and eerily silver-haired, American indie writer-director Jim Jarmusch (Night on Earth, Mystery Train, Ghost Dog) could almost pass for a vampire himself. It’s no wonder then that his latest film, a stylish and witty romantic tale about a couple of ancient, entirely civilised blood-suckers, feels like a perfect match of filmmaker and subject. Being Jarmusch, these vampires aren’t just beautiful, rich, powerful and sexy. They’re cool. Almost too cool, like jaded British rock stars in tight leather pants – his are black; hers creamy white. But the film is saved from hipster hell by a deadpan sense of humour and a moving love story that makes us care very much about whether these creatures survive.

Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are Eve and Adam, a couple who’ve been married for hundreds of years and now live apart, though they’re still very much in love. Eve lives in Tangier, where she sleeps in a silken bed, speed-reads literary classics and hangs out with the vampiric writer Thomas Marlowe (John Hurt), who turns out to have ghost-written for Shakespeare back in the old days.

"An unhurried pleasure"

On the other side of the world, Adam (who looks like Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett) lives in the outskirts of grungy Detroit, composing music, collecting electric guitars and only interacting with the world through an affable human assistant (Anton Yelchin). Prone to depression, Adam (who could have inspired Hamlet if he’d been born earlier) mourns the stupidity and destructiveness of human beings, whom he refers to as ‘zombies’.

After sensing Adam’s deep depression (during a steampunk-style Skype call), Eve travels on a night flight to cheer him up. Reunited, they pass the time drinking goblets of purified blood, listening to music and cruising the decaying midnight streets in Adam’s vintage white Jaguar, pointing out such oddities as ‘the house that Jack White grew up in. I love Jack White!’ Their idyll is interrupted when Eve’s naughty younger sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) arrives on the doorstep, putting them all in danger with her reckless thirst for the good stuff.

Related: Tilda Swinton interview

For a film about vampires, Only Lovers Left Alive is surprisingly bloodless (in the literal sense), and contains very little violence. ‘Killing? It’s so 15th Century!’ says Eve at one point with arch disgust. Raw human blood is polluted, like the world that’s been sullied by human greed and decadence, meaning these vampires are romantic and tragic figures, brought to the brink of extinction. A melancholy and exhausted air pervades even the funniest moments, though the film never gives in to despair.

With a palette of sumptuous blues, blacks and ivories, and a swooning camera that’s fond of sitting on the ceiling or following its subjects on their smooth cruises around town, Only Lovers Left Alive is Jarmusch’s first film to be shot on digital, by DOP Yorick Le Saux (Swimming Pool, I am Love).  The soundtrack, much of it composed and performed by Jarmusch’s band SQÜRL, is mournfully…well, cool, heavy with jangly steel guitar and lots of reverb.

Deliciously romantic, this is a vampire film for adults – a love story for souls more interested in poetry, love and music than in the baring of fangs or biting of necks. An unhurried pleasure, it also functions as a witty parable about creative exhaustion and renewal – and suggests that Jarmusch himself has found a fresh supply of the pure stuff.

Only Lovers Left Alive

9:55PM, Sun 27 Oct on SBS World Movies (at SBS On Demand after broadcast)

UK, France, Germany, USA, 2014
Genre: Drama
Language: English
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Tilda Swinton, Anton Yelchin, Mia Wasikowska
What's it about?
Underground musician Adam (Hiddleston) reunites with his lover for centuries (Swinton) after he becomes depressed and tired with the direction human society has taken. Their love is interrupted and tested by her wild and uncontrollable little sister (Wasikowska). From cult director Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man, Down By Law).