Birth (15)

The fairy tale of a comeback kid

The young British director Jonathan Glazer furnished one of the most arresting sequences in recent cinema when he staged an underwater robbery during his debut movie Sexy Beast (2001). His second film, Birth, is a world away from the brutish swagger and strut of his first, but it's a match in visual assurance, and in terms of psychological nuance and emotional inquiry it is much the superior.

Set in wintry haut monde Manhattan, it stars Nicole Kidman as Anna, a well-to-do woman who, 10 years after losing her husband, is about to remarry. One gets the distinct impression that her decision to wed Joseph (Danny Huston) has been a tough one, and a mood of unease thrums around the baronial Upper East Side apartment where she lives with her mother Eleanor (Lauren Bacall). "May is good for a wedding - nice and warm", says the latter, in a voice anything but.

One evening, when the family is gathered for a birthday celebration, a 10-year-old boy (Cameron Bright) turns up uninvited and asks to speak with Anna in private. His message: he is her dead husband, Sean, reincarnated, and his warning: don't marry Joseph. Anna, stung, dismisses the boy, but he keeps returning to her building, and when he is told by his father not to bother Anna any more he faints.

This set-up is both disconcerting and faintly absurd, teetering towards the trap-door whoosh of body-swap comedies such as Big or Freaky Friday. Anna's first reaction to young Sean's declaration is to smile - only a kid could get away with saying something so outlandish. Yet disbelief slowly turns to distress as he reveals intimate knowledge of her life, and she confronts the possibility that this really might be her beloved husband, returned from the dead.

Much depends on the performance of Nicole Kidman for the audience to play along. Spectrally pale, with hair cropped elfin-short, she maintains a glassy composure that only gradually reveals its hairline crack. Glazer holds one amazing wordless shot of her, seated amid an audience while a Wagner opera thunders over the stalls; the camera stays trained on her face for what seems like an age, her perfect brittle stillness only jolted when her fiancé leans to whisper something in her ear. Her role is hauntingly ambiguous, poised between conviction and derangement.

Glazer reportedly conceived the film as a modern fairy tale, with Eleanor's de-luxe apartment standing in as a royal court, Anna as the isolated princess and the boy as the romantic usurper. The hushed lighting and creamy décor have an enveloping richness that's just a beat away from stifling. An early scene in Central Park, where a woman buries a potential clue to the mystery, is the equivalent of an enchanted-forest episode, and there is talk of Anna's being under "a spell". But the real world insistently drums at the door. For all her queenly hauteur, Anna's mother isn't above common sarcasm: "How's Mister Reincarnation enjoying his cake?". Danny Huston, with his devil's eyebrows, is also very good as a man who's just had the air let out of his tyres: passing through patience, bemusement and frustration, he finally loses it altogether in a spectacular outburst of rage, overturning furniture and a grand piano to get his hands on the kid and administer a spanking.

By this point you will either be enthralled or repelled by the mood of anguished moping; I don't think anyone will be indifferent. As for its creepiness, the film has already gained notoriety for the scene in which the boy slowly removes his clothes and climbs into the tub with Kidman, though I found this less disturbing than the later moment when, fully clothed, he kisses her sensually on the mouth. Perhaps it's to do with 10-year-old Cameron Bright's unsmiling eyes and imperturbable manner. When Anna asks him how he can possible fulfil her "needs", he replies, "I know what you're talking about". The movie, written by Glazer with Jean-Claude Carrière and Milo Addica, wants us to root for Anna's belief in Sean, yet we keep running up against the inconvenient fact of his being 10 years old.

For most of its length, Birth stays pregnant with possibility. Could Anna's relationship with Sean be a displacement of her widow's longings and regrets? Is Sean a figment, or a messenger from the afterlife? But the eventual explanation almost throws us out of the movie altogether. The trick of reality pulling the rug from beneath spiritual hankering was chillingly finessed in Sarah Waters's superb novel Affinity - not so here. In the end its point seems to be "the heart has its reasons". The final image of Kidman stumbling along the sea shore might have been far more affecting if the film had allowed the heart to keep those reasons a mystery. For all that, this lugubriously romantic movie has a style all its own, and scenes that would be the pride of any director.

Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?