Nicole Kidman as Anna
Cameron Bright as Young Sean
Danny Huston as Joseph
Lauren Bacall as Eleanor
Alison Elliott as Laura
Arliss Howard as Bob
Michael Desautels as Sean
Anne Heche as Clara
Peter Stormare as Clifford
Ted Levine as Mr. Conte
Cara Seymour as Mrs. Conte
Scott Johnsen as Caterer
Joe M. Chalmers as Sinclair
Novella Nelson as Lee
Zoe Caldwell as Mrs. Hill
Jonathan Glazer’s slow and meandering Birth fails to work on many levels, because the premise and characters are so implausible, a shame considering the amount of talent involved.
Ten years after the death of her husband Sean, Anna (Nicole Kidman) is ready to move on with her life by marrying her fiancé Joseph (Danny Huston) but then a young boy (Cameron Bright) enters her life, claiming to be her dead husband and warning her not to marry him. After the boy answers all the questions thrown at him by Anna and her family, she decides there must be some credence to his claims, allowing him to move into her apartment, causing friction with her family and fiancé.
Director Jonathan Glazer turned a lot of heads with his debut feature, the gritty crime drama Sexy Beast, a movie that shocked and impressed with its unique story and characters, so the thought that his follow-up could fail to deliver on those very same elements is surprising.
The very premise is ultimately what kills the movie, as there is little explanation why this boy suddenly realizes he’s Anna’s husband, while there are many reasons why she shouldn’t believe him. The only time we ever meet this elusive long-lost love is in a five minute sequence of a jogger running through Central Park as you wait for the credits to roll. They never do come, letting you know right away that this is going to be a film that regularly tries your patience. Then again, if you’re able to suspend your disbelief in the possibility that this boy may indeed be Anna’s husband resurrected, Birth might work for you, but without seeing the back story of Anna and her husband when they were married, there is little to make one believe that a relationship between the two might ever work.
The nature of a movie involving reincarnation seems like the perfect set-up for a captivating supernatural thriller, but instead, Glazer uses the seeming return of Sean as a way to explore Anna’s grief and how her love affects her grip on reality. Kidman once again proves that as an actress, she’s able to rise above even the weakest of material, but there’s only so far that even she can go with this character. Sporting short hair ala Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby, Kidman is convincing as a woman completely overwrought with grief and confusion when this boy enters her life, but at times, she seems so gullible and obsessive that it’s almost impossible to feel sorry for her situation. Her one great moment occurs while she’s watching an opera and she lets the motions wash over her as Glazer’s camera hones in on her face for what seems like hours.
The film bodes comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s difficult swansong Eyes Wide Shut, both in its hypnotic tone, the enigmatic way it unravels, as well as Glazer’s use of New York’s Upper East Side for the story’s background. Kubrick may not be the best template for a hot young director to avoid sophomore slump, and the timing could be better, considering how closely it follows on the heels of Dylan Kidd’s sophomore effort P.S., also about a woman, in this case Laura Linney, falling in love with a younger man she believes to be an ex-lover.
Other scenes do an even better job destroying the credibility. In a scene that freaked out those who caught the premiere at the Venice Film Festival, Anna is taking a bath, when the young Sean walks in, strips down to nothing and then slips into the bath with her. It’s not nearly as lurid as it sounds, except that any normal woman would likely have screamed out as soon as this boy entered the bathroom where she was naked. Anna just sits there and accepts that this young boy is her husband. Many things are hard to believe, but considering how long this woman has lived in New York City, her accepting behavior like that is a bit hard to swallow.
To his credit, the film’s lucky young star Cameron Bright, who played a similar role in Godsend, is able to keep pace with the more experienced actors, although the deadpan delivery to try to make him believable as an adult in a child’s body tends to drag the scenes down. By comparison, Danny Huston, son of the director John Huston, just isn’t a very credible actor. Like in John Sayles’ Silver City, he is not as capable of keeping up with the more experienced cast, playing Joseph with such smarmy arrogance that once he does crack and lash out at the boy, it’s harder to feel much sympathy for the fact that his fiancé is still obsessed with her former husband. The conflict between the man and boy does present the film’s most climactic scene, but after seeing Kidman in bed with Huston, it’s easier to accept why she may pick a ten-year-old boy over him.
The supporting cast is equally impressive including actress Lauren Bacall and Anne Heche as a scheming woman whose connection to Anna and Sean remains a well-guarded mystery for most of the film, but favorite character actors like Peter Stormare and Ted Levine are underused.
One would expect a strong script for such a dramatic film, but the sparse dialogue consists mainly of the different people debating whether the young boy might actually be Sean or not. It’s a shame, since one would expect the director of Sexy Beast to be able to deliver a film that isn’t so boring in its delivery.
To reveal whether Sean is actually the reincarnation of Anna’s husband or not is pointless, since after two hours of watching people who you don’t really care, the relationship is given a deeply unsatisfying, esoteric resolution. Ultimately, Birth ends up being more infuriating than frustrating, because you want the story to pull you in, but there’s never anything to hold onto.