November, 2004, Drama

Directed by:Jonathan Glazer

Starring:Nicole Kidman, Cameron Bright, Danny Huston, and Lauren Bacall

Director Jonathan Glazer's first film, (Sexy Beast), was blessed with a mesmerizing performance by Ben Kingsley that totally dominated an otherwise pedestrian heist movie. In Birth, Nicole Kidman operates at the other end of the emotional spectrum, employing delicate nuance in delivering the portrait of a widow slipping into obsessive mental disorientation in a manner Kingsley's character would have understood perfectly. But once again, Glazer wraps a sterling performance inside a storyline whose resolution can't stand comparison with it's delivery; Kidman's study of a woman sinking into a nightmarish identity crisis earns an A+ for her, but only a B- for the movie as a whole.

Since the death of her husband Sean a decade earlier, Anna, (Kidman) a thirty-ish New Yorker, lives with her mother Eleanor, (Lauren Bacall) in an elegant apartment facing the heart of Central Park on Fifth Avenue. Anna's younger sister Laura, (Alison Elliott) and brother-in-law Bob (Arliss Howard) are also staying with Eleanor while their apartment gets retrofitted for the arrival of their first child. Eleanor has yet another guest; Anna's fiancé Bob, (Danny Huston) who's managed to win Anna's hand after years of persistent courtship. An engagement party for the couple provides the mysterious launch-pad for the events which follow, in which a cherubic 10- year old boy suddenly enters Anna's cosseted world, claiming to be her deceased husband. 

The young Sean has real parents and a plausible excuse for appearing so inexplicably on Eleanor's doorstep; (he's the son of a tutor giving lessons to someone in Eleanor's building) but there's a catch; this Sean clearly possesses knowledge only Anna and the man to whom she was married could know. What's worse, he insists that she mustn't go through with her plans to marry Bob.

Anna reacts to this outlandish situation with a mixture of bemusement, fear and revulsion, but as the youngster pursues her with unwavering conviction, she's drawn into an oddly imbalanced courtship, which not surprisingly drives a wedge into her relationship with her mother, sister and increasingly outraged finance. Can this child really be Anna's reincarnated spouse, the love of her life? If not, how can he know what he knows and what gives his hypnotic gaze such power over her?

As Anna's family grows increasingly frightened by her obsession with the boy, she responds with a mixture of motherly affection and erotic fascination that culminates in her decision, against all logic, to believe his claim is genuine. That's the point at which Glazer explains the mystery he's so effectively created, and it promptly sends the movie rapidly downhill.

Working with the sensual musical score of composer Alexander Desplat, (Girl With a Pearl Earring) and the elegantly moody tones of cinematographer Harris Savides, (responsible for the quietly threatening camerawork in Elephants, Gus Van Sant's disturbing examination of the Columbine High School massacre) Glazer creates an ambiance that suggests rather than explains, hinting at issues that lie beneath the expensively maintained urbanity of his characters. 

As Anna, Kidman delivers a performance of such quiet intensity that her progression from condescending sophisticate to infatuated participant in young Sean's inexplicable romantic quest becomes palpably credible, despite its irrational circumstances. Kidman's work on the screen is generally marked by a constipation that coats her characters with a thin film of artificially; here, it's precisely that unwillingness to completely let go of her emotions that makes Kidman's grieving widow so credibly vulnerable. After an early confrontation with the boy's father, Bob takes Anna to a concert which the director uses to present Kidman's face in an extended close-up; the scene is accompanied only the soundtrack. As the music (Wagner, at his emotionally overwrought best) surges, Kidman's expression reflects, with gossamer subtlety, the conflicting emotions she's feeling. It's a stunning scene, brilliantly conceived by Glazer and powerfully delivered by Kidman. But she's not the only member of the cast called upon for intense close-ups; each member of her family takes a shot at breaking the resolve of the strange boy who's injected himself into Anna's life and on every such occasion, their glares are met by his intensely sweet yet disturbing expression. The script adopts this minimalist approach too; long silences punctuate conversations here, suggesting bewilderment, suppressed feelings and outright dread. 

Bacall, and Howard are fine in their limited roles, while Danny Huston, (so appallingly bad in Silver City) does an adequate job of providing Bob with the boorishness that only makes young Sean more attractive by comparison, but this is Kidman's movie and she certainly makes the best of it. Sadly however, for all of its brilliantly executed ambiance and Kidman's astonishing performance, the movie has become a failed exercise in art-house intrigue as the final credits roll. 



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