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.

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