There's nothing worse a film losing its nerve – daring and verve are such rare commodities these days in mainstream Hollywood films that when one promises a story that strays from convention, it's something worth anticipating. A curious mixture of "The Twilight Zone," Lolita, Roman Polanski, David Fincher and Stanley Kubrick, director Jonathan Glazer's (Sexy Beast) chamber piece Birth dances on the edge for most of the film, only to chicken out and give up 20 minutes from the finish line.
And no, the much-ballyhooed bathing scene between stars Nicole Kidman and 10 year-old Cameron Bright doesn't herald the arrival of studio-sanctioned child pornography; everything regarding Kidman and Bright is handled very tactfully and in fact, were it not for a rather explicit sex scene between Kidman and Danny Huston, the film would've likely garnered a PG-13.
Birth concerns itself with Anna (Kidman), a New York socialite whose husband Sean (Michael Desautels) died a decade ago and who is currently about to re-marry, this time to Joseph (Huston). It's just as the nuptials are announced that a child (Bright), who bears the name and apparently, the memories, of Anna's dead husband appears and urges her not to marry Joseph. This, understandably, freaks Anna's family out, including her mother, Eleanor (Lauren Bacall) and sister Laura (Alison Elliott), particularly when Anna finds herself falling for Sean all over again – despite the fact that he's only 10.
Glazer appears to be channeling Polanski and Kubrick for the duration of the film; the unbroken takes, relentless tracking shots (courtesy of Fincher and Gus Van Sant cinematographer fave Harris Savides) interspersed with penetrating close-ups of actors' faces, along with a palpable tension, combine to create a film that's unsettling from the opening frames.
The screenplay, by Glazer, Milo Addica (Monster's Ball) and Jean-Claude Carriere (who tackled similar themes in 1982's The Return of Martin Guerre), falls apart at a critical juncture, which causes all of the simmering uneasiness to dissipate and render the first two-thirds of the film moot. It's a shame, as Glazer also managed to assemble a pretty stellar cast, including Bacall, Kidman, Huston (much better here than in Silver City), Peter Stormare, Arliss Howard and Anne Heche, all of whom gamely attempt to enliven the sometimes torpid events onscreen.
Birth, despite its best intentions, is a stillborn thriller that fails to live up to its promising conceit. Kidman continues to generally pick projects that go against the grain of a Hollywood princess and for that, if nothing else, audiences should be grateful. This one, however, is best left for a rainy Saturday afternoon at home.
As befits a dark, moody film, the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer of Birth is a dour, though crisp, affair. Graininess tends to be a problem in the more lowly-lit scenes, but those stark close-ups are rendered cleanly. An OK transfer of difficult material.
Birth is offered in Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 stereo; as the film's largely driven by dialogue, there's not much for the speakers to do here. Alexandre Desplat's mournful score sounds full and smooth and overall, it's a slight, if robust aural presentation.
New Line didn't include so much as a commentary track from someone associated with the film - all that's included are anamorphic widescreen trailers for Birth, Monster In Law, The Upside of Anger, The New World, Bright Young Things and Vera Drake.
Kidman pulls a Mia Farrow here and immerses herself in a chilly, heartwrenching psychological mystery - the relative speed with which Birth moved from the theaters is in no way an indicator of quality - aside from dropping the ball on the narrative twist, there's enough good here to recommend a rental.
Portions of this review were reprinted from the Oklahoma Gazette.