Is Kidman robbing the cradle in this unusual romantic drama?
By Devin D. O'Leary
Directed by Jonathan Glazer
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Danny Huston
Birth, at least from the trailers, appears to have the slightly uneasy concept of ravishing beauty Nicole Kidman falling in love with a 10-year-old kid. As it happens, that's not quite the film's plot. But it's close enough for spitting.
No, this is not the Mary Kay Letourneau story. Instead, it's a sort of “metaphysical romance” about a grief-addled young woman named Anna (Kidman) who finally gets up the nerve to remarry 10 years after her husband's death. On the eve of her engagement to a cultured fellow (Danny Huston), a little boy named Sean (Cameron Bright) shows up to her ritzy Manhattan apartment and drops the bombshell that he is, in fact, her dead husband. Not only that, but he wants her back. To quote Keanu Reeves: Whoa.
What would seem like a bizarre concept is treated with stone-cold sobriety. There's no religious or philosophical mumbo jumbo here. Just a very bizarre love triangle and a bunch of confused people trying to sort it out.
Director Jonathan Glazer follows up his violently energized debut film, Sexy Beast, with this slow, contemplative sophomore effort. He demonstrates amazing patience and supreme confidence in his actors, lingering on them in long, silent takes. Allowing faces to express feelings rather than relying on long speeches is a risky gamble, but Glazer's got an incredibly classy cast supporting him.
Kidman is impossibly beautiful, ensconced in an amber-hued New York world that rarely strays from Upper East Side penthouses or the wintry grounds of Central Park. Anna's mixture of confusion, hope and love are evident in every scene, and there will undoubtedly be more Oscar talk about Kidman's delicate performance here. Huston, in his second effort this year (after Silver City), plays Anna's husband-to-be with gravity and emotion. Anne Bancroft (following Kidman straight from Dogville) is an always welcome sight as Anna's aristocratic mother. An almost unrecognizable Anne Heche, meanwhile, turns in a superbly nuanced performance. And newcomer Cameron Bright is just scary good.
In the end, this is a love story. It's not some sappy “love never dies” tale like Ghost, however. Assuming Sean is the real deal reincarnation of Anna's lost love, this is a rather impossible situation for all involved. The film doesn't exactly shy away from its more uncomfortable implications, either. (If Sean really is the reincarnation of Anna's husband, what now? Is he going to fulfill his spousal obligations? Will they have to wait until he's 21 to get married again?).
The mature, emotion-heavy screenplay is a collaboration between Glazer, Milo Addica (who penned Monster's Ball) and French legend Jean-Claude Carrière (who's written more than 100 films, including The Tin Drum, The Return of Martin Guerre, Belle de Jour and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie). A little more sense of humor might have been nice. The entire affair is awfully somber. Still, the script does keep up a consistent tone and treats its far-fetched premise with dignity and veracity--which is probably the best thing audiences could ask for in this day and age of flippant and easily forgotten entertainment.
Birth is the kind of film that makes you think (at least about the concept of loved ones returning as prepubescent boys). It isn't the kind of film that provides all the answers to the heady questions it asks within its 100-minute run time, either. Your gray matter is going to have to keep working after the closing credits on this one. I'm thinking most mainstream moviegoers won't find it worth the effort: too elusive, too uncomfortable and too portentous by half. After a summer of mindless bombast, though, maybe some complex emotions and a bit of brain activity is just what the box office needs.