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.

News

literature

News
Dermot O'Leary attends the X Factor Wembley Arena auditions at Wembley on August 1, 2014 in London, England.

television

News
news
Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
photography
News
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
people
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
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.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss