Dir: Jonathan Glazer.UK-US. 2004. 100mins.
Jonathan Glazer'slong-awaited follow-up to Sexy Beast shows the commercials and musicvideo director in austere, minimalist mode. A snail-paced but neverthelesscompelling yarn about a ten-year-old boy who claims to be the reincarnation ofa woman's dead husband, Birth is half psychological thriller and halfexistential love story. By turns brilliant and frustrating, this is a film ofreal authority, in which Glazer reins in the mannerisms of his debut and emergesas a fully-fledged auteur.
It is not an easydistribution prospect though - not so much because of the scene in which anaked pre-pubescent boy gets into the tub with Nicole Kidman (the scene is soright in context that it will only offend the most po-facedly literal ofcensorship boards), as because its sombre look, funeral-march rhythm andpared-back dialogue require a great deal of patience on the part of theaudience.
Kidman, back on form afterthe banana skin of The Human Stain and the water-treading of ColdMountain, can be counted on to broaden the film's box-office outreach, justas she did with The Others. With a Jean Seberg gamine haircut, Kidman turns in afinely-inflected performance as a woman whose brittle and hard-earnedself-assurance crumbles away to revel the raw emotion beneath. Distributors would be right, though, to be a littlenervous about such a downbeat film's auxiliary prospects.
One is hard-pressed torecall a commercial film in which a camera dwells for almost two minutes, infixed close-up, on a single face, without any words being spoken. The face isKidman's, the scene one in which, after confronting the solemn, determinedlittle boy who claims to be her long-dead husband Sean - and failing to get himto change his story - her character, Anna, sits ashen-faced in her seat at aclassical music concert, ripped apart by long-suppressed memories.
It may be that Glazer hasbeen watching a lot of Stanley Kubrick movies recently - but though theinfluence is up there on screen, this particular take is too powerful to feelderivative.
The key thing with an edgypsycho-drama like this is to maintain the plot tension. For most of the first80 minutes, this is exactly what Glazer does, taking the audience along thesame parabola, from incredulity to growing conviction, which is traced by hisemotionally fragile heroine.
Young Cameron Bright (soonto be seen in Godsend) is well castas Young Sean: with his solemn, grown-up face, he can curdle patronising adultswith a single look. And Danny Huston is a good foil to Kidman as Joseph, Anna'srich, fiancee, whose urbane and charming manner is unsettled, to the point ofexplosion, by the impassive ten-year-old. In her second pairing with Kidman, after Dogville,Lauren Bacall is suitably acidic as Anna's authoritarian mother.
As one would expect from aninveterate image-hound like Glazer, the film has a distinctive and disciplinedlook. Set in uptown New York over a particularly cold winter, Birth pans outbetween the bare, tree-lined avenues of Central Park and the elegant but rathercold apartment shared by Anna and Joseph. Lighting is turned right down, andthe film is given a weary, faded look by pushing the stock to leech out much ofthe colour.
Alexandre's surging modernclassical score - sort of Philip Glass meets Wagner meets Tchaikovsky - is usedoccasionally to underline the gravitas, occasionally to provide a jaunty,almost Christmassy counterpoint for certain key scenes, before cutting back tothe prevailing double-glazed silence.
It is only in the last 10minutes, as the plot wraps and deflates, that Birth misses its stride;something more is needed than unanswered questions about Anna and Joseph'sfuture to fill the tension gap at this point. But despite the climbdown, thisis an assured second film that resists the pull of mere style exercise.
Prod co: Academy Productions
Int'l sales: New Line Cinema
Prods: Nick Morris, Lizie Gower
Scr: Jean-Claude Carriere, MiloAddica, Jonathan Glazer
Cine: Harris Savides
Prod des: Kevin Thompson
Ed: Sam Sneade, Claus Wehlisch
Mus: Alexandre Desplat
Main cast: Nicole Kidman, CameronBright, Danny Huston, Lauren Bacall, Anne Heche, Peter Stormare