© 2004 Ray Wong
At first glance, BIRTH might appear to be another supernatural film about reincarnation. In reality, it’s a quiet, philosophical piece that examines our psyches, relationships, and social taboos.
After grieving for her husband for ten years, Anna (Kidman) finally decides to accept the insistent proposal from her boyfriend Joseph (Huston). Her late husband’s best friend Clifford (Stormare) and wife Clare (Heche) are unhappy about the engagement, but they keep it to themselves.
At the private birthday party at Anna’s mother Eleanor’s (Bacall) posh Upper East Side apartment, a ten-year-old boy (Bright) shows up unannounced. Later, he declares to Anna that he is her late husband, Sean, and urges her not to marry Joseph. At first Anna brushes it aside as a ridiculous prank, and asks Sean to leave her alone. Soon Sean grows more persistent, and seems to know so much about the relationship between Anna and her husband that she starts to waver. What if her husband actually comes back as a boy? What if?
Anna’s family is skeptical, of course, but they can’t explain how Sean knows so much. Is it a spell? A curse? Or is it possible that the little boy really is Sean? As Anna falls under the spell herself, Joseph becomes insanely jealous. Then everything takes a strange turn when Clare shows up, questioning Sean’s true identity.
Kidman (COLD MOUNTAIN) is exquisite as the tormented Anna. Her pixie hair, beautiful and expressive face, and slender figure remind us of Mia Farrow in ROSEMARY’S BABY (so does the film itself). She is mesmerizing in every scene, and her complex performance gives the film the emotional weight and anchor it needs. Huston (21 GRAMS) also is fantastic as Joseph. His performance is both sympathetic and complex, possibly the most multi-dimensional character in the film. As the young Sean, Bright (BUTTERFLY EFFECT) exudes great poise and a creepily adult quality. A young actor to watch.
On the contrary, screen legend Bacall (DOGVILLE) is rather wasted here as the wealthy mother. Her character is too cold and distant to have any kind of emotional resonance with her daughter or the audience (perhaps that’s the whole point, but I’m not buying it). The rest of the cast is adequate, if not underused and underdeveloped. Heche (JOHN Q) brings in a solid performance in the pivotal but small role as Clare.
BIRTH moves with such slow pace that at times you think the film stops rolling. Writer-director Glazer (SEXY BEAST), with the help of the gorgeous, lingering cinematography by Harris Savides (ELEPHANT), creates a moody, languid character study that is both thought-provoking and confusing at times. There is one particularly spellbinding scene at a symphony concert – as the strings swell and timpani thumps, the camera zooms in and stays on Kidman’s face for a long time; and you get to wonder: What is she thinking? I think it’s one of the most memorable cinematic moments.
The score by Alexendre Desplat (GIRL WITH PEARL EARING) is captivating and serves the film exquisitely.
Unfortunately, the writing is not as strong as the production. While consistent in tone and treatment, the plot lacks movement sometimes. The characters (except Anna, Joseph and Sean) are largely underdeveloped. The plot twist seems forced and contrived, not at all convincing. There are some plot holes that baffle the mind (For example, how does Sean know where “he” died? Or why doesn’t Anna’s family ask Sean the details about his work as a physicist?) The biggest problem I have with the script is that it is simply too introspective, even for a character-driven drama. Sometimes the characters don’t even talk to each other. It may have worked as a novel, but in the film medium, it is too internal. The audience is left to their own devices, a lot of times, to figure out what the characters are thinking or feeling, without the help of external events.
Despite its flaws, BIRTH remains enjoyable as it explores the psychological and philosophical aspects of love. What if your loved one comes back to life as a child? Can you fall in love again? With a child? Something to think about.
Stars: Nicole Kidman, Lauren Bacall, Danny Huston, Allison Eliot, Arliss Howard, Anne Heche, Peter Stormare, Cameron Bright
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Writers: Milo Addica, Jean-Claude Carriere, Jonathan Glazer
Distributor: New Line
MPAA Rating: R for sexuality and nudity
Script – 5
Performance – 9
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 7
Production – 8
Total – 6.9 out of 10