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Birthday Girl

Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment // R // August 13, 2002
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by D.K. Holm | posted September 2, 2002 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:

There have been so many efforts to establish Nicole Kidman as a sexy starlette—as a femme fatale—of late that you kind of forget that she has resisted that sort of treatment her whole career. But unlike another British Empire actress, Julia Ormond, whom the studios plucked out of live theater and groomed for stardom thanks to her Julia Roberts smile coupled with a larger chest size, Kidman has successfully resisted that Promotional-Industrial Complex pigeon-holing. She has continually selected odd, counter-intuitive projects, such as The Others, movies that went on to validate her instincts by becoming dynamite at the box-office. And in any case she began life as a teen tomboy star in Australia, with her first American exposure coming in Dead Calm as the tough dedicated wife of a Naval surgeon, a Ripley with a flare gun and a man's sports watch.

The "people" don't seem to take to her as a starlet, anyway. The lure of Moulin Rouge was Lurhmann, not Kidman. His visual, campy pyrotechnics would have worked as well with anyone before the camera. Instead, Kidman comes off a little cold on camera in "sexy" movies when she is suppose to be inviting, and though she can be funny in Moulin Rouge, for the most part she is a black hole at the center of the film where there should be a sexual gravitational pull.

Which isn't to say that she doesn't want to be sexy in movies. She is an actress, after all, and we all know how there are. A desire for plain, rot-gut sex appeal may have been the motivation behind her decision to star in Birthday Girl (that, and being able to shoot in Australia, convincingly posing as England in the film). Here Kidman continues to be in Eyes-Moulin mode, rather than in the style of the prim, fearful character in The Others, where she was more convincing (one regrets that she slid out of Panic Room, which would have harked back to her Dead Calmer days).

In Birthday Girl she plays Nadia, the Russian mail order bride of a lonely, staid British bank drone named John (Ben Chaplin). At first alarmed that she speaks no English, in violation of her description in the on-line service From Russian With Love that he uses, John soon takes a liking to her, especially after she finds his cache of bondage magazines and gladly offers up her wrists for binding (and few actresses in the biz have wrists as attractive as Kidman's).

Things turn ugly, of course, when two previously unmentioned friends of Nadia's show up unexpectedly on her birthday. They are Alexei (Vincent Cassel of Read My Lips) and Yuri (Mathieu Kassovitz), and of course there is more to their presence than at first it seems. It turns out that the trio is an international gang of bank thieves whose technique is a more elaborate form of the subterfuge Bruce Willis used in Bandits. Suffice it to say that John ends up rather disillusioned, yet in the end still able to forge a romance with Nadia (real name, Sophia).

Birthday Girl is directed by Jez Butterworth and written by him with Tom Butterworth (the screenplay has even been published, by Hyperion Talk books, ISBN 0 7868 8588 2). It proves to be light, predictable fare resting for success on the appeal of its stars. Butterworth is a playwright turned filmmaker whose previous movie is a "British crime wave" tale called Mojo. It must be said that Kidman is "sexier" here than in most of her other sexpot roles (actresses like to act "down" into classes lower than their own). And Chaplin is almost agreeable as a traditional character in British films, the put-upon bureaucrat not as smart as he things, here tricked up with a foray into Die Hard heroics. Except for the Russian bride business, the film feels like Peckinpah lite, John experiencing a safer version of the horrors Jack Dodson had to endure from Al Lettieri in The Getaway.


VIDEO: Disney-Miramax effects an excellent transfer of the film, with nary a flaw. The single-sided, dual-layered disc offers a fine rendition of Stephen Warbeck's comforting wide screen (2.35:1) cinematography (enhanced for wide screen televisions), with its clean lines and greenswards of rich green grass.

SOUND: The sound is about as good as you are going to need for a talky film with little in the way of music, except for a Russian hip hop song and a few other background tunes. The audio is in Dolby Digital 5.1, in English and French, with English and Spanish subtitles. Curiously, much of the dialogue is in Russian, and it goes untranslated, which is at least one reason to buy the screenplay, where the dialogue is translated.

MENUS: The wide-screen menus, static and silent, offer 14 chapter scene selection for the 90 minute film. The menus are festooned with stills from the film.

PACKAGING: The keep case cover offers a version of the poster, and there are additional images on the back and on the one page insert with the chapter list. There is no label.

EXTRAS: Supplements are modest. There is a six-minute making of featurette, which is really an exaggerated trailer for the film. There is also a music video in which the old Sinatra standard "Something Stupid" gets a Sirkian re-tooling in a three minute video featuring Robbie Williams and Kidman (it's directed by Vaughan Arnell from Williams's Capitol record/DVD Live at the Albert). It's a lush but odd video. At one point Kidman's character turns to a woman at the table next to her and says, "I love you" in rhyme with the song. Plus there is a steamy bedroom scene between her and the singer, in which an expensive looking riding crop figures subtly. Finally, extras-wise, there is a host of trailers for other Miramax movies: The Others, In the Bedroom, The Shipping News, Amelie, "Miramax Movies to Remember," and finally Gangs of New York, all listed in ersatz Cyrillic on the menu against a picture of Kidman and Chaplin at a campfire.

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