Dir: Jez Butterworth. UK-US. 2001. 85mins.
After an unusually long time in the works, Birthday Girl emerges as a likeable and competent small-scale divertissement which represents a considerable advance on Mojo, writer-director Jez Butterworth's poorly received debut film adapted from his own stage play. Birthday Girl is notable above all for a splendid comic performance from Nicole Kidman - her best since To Die For - which, along with her recent, very different characterisations in Moulin Rouge and The Others, confirms her as an actress of remarkable versatility. Her presence will attract initial interest, and Mathieu Kassovitz and Vincent Cassel should be an additional draw in French-speaking territories. However the movie's best prospects probably lie in ancillary outlets.
Ben Chaplin plays John, a nerdy, quintessentially nice-but-dull bank clerk from St Albans, an English provincial town near London, who orders a Russian bride over the Internet. At first he can't believe his luck when his prize turns out to be the stunningly beautiful Nadia (Kidman). But complications ensue. Although her emails had assured John otherwise, Nadia speaks no English and, with her stringy black hair, kohl-rimmed eyes, tarty wardrobe and ever-present cigarette, she's not exactly the girl of his dreams.
John leaves a string of increasingly desperate messages with the marriage bureau. Meanwhile Nadia sets out determinedly to seduce him, and, discovering his little secret collection of hard core pornography, draws him into bondage games (which the film deals with somewhat discreetly). By the time her birthday comes around, they are getting along famously.
Thus far the film seems to be shaping up as a British version of Green Card and it's to both performers' credit that they create an entirely believable chemistry between the two mismatched lovers. Though neither character is likeable to begin with, Chaplin suggests the decency, romanticism and sense of humour behind John's buttoned-down persona, while Kidman brings to her role a vulnerability and (despite having no dialogue for the first half of the story) a zesty comic touch.
Even so, this premise is starting to run out of steam, when the story takes a sharp left turn with the arrival of two crazy Russians (Cassel and Kassovitz). Claiming to be Nadia's close friends, they help her celebrate her birthday in grand, vodka-marinated style but soon turn violent and blackmail the law-abiding John into robbing the bank where he works, and to whose vault he holds a key.
From this point on, the film becomes bogged down in improbabilities (why doesn't John go to the police' would he really be able to make off with the loot this easily') and in a constant stream of plot twists. Butterworth's direction doesn't keep the pace bubbling along fast and furious enough to sustain the needed tone of madcap comedy. However Birthday Girl rallies towards the end, which neatly recaps several of the jokes introduced in the early scenes, and its brisk running time means that it never seriously outstays its welcome.
Kidman and the two French actors are all unexpectedly credible, even attacking with gusto and conviction great swathes of dialogue in Russian. Less convincing is the film's woolly sense of place, despite the fact that the Butterworth brothers grew up near St Albans. Perhaps it's that there's already an essential blandness to the new housing estates, small-town high streets, motorways and Travel Lodges of this area of Southern Britain, or perhaps it's partly because the interior scenes were shot in Sydney, Australia (where Kidman's then-husband Tom Cruise was shooting Mission Impossible 2). The absence of strongly demarcated secondary characters, such as John's friends and work colleagues, adds to this feeling of anonymity.
Prod cos: FilmFour, Miramax.
Co-prod: Mirage Enterprises.
Int'l sales: Miramax.
UK dist: FilmFour.
Exec prods:. Prods: Stephen Butterworth, Diana Phillips.
Scr: Jez Butterworth, Tom Butterworth.
Cinematography: Oliver Stapleton.
Prod des: Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski.
Ed: Christopher Tellefsen.
Music: Stephen Warbeck.
Main cast: Nicole Kidman, Ben Chaplin, Vincent Cassel, Mathieu Kassovitz.