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
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game