Nicole Kidman has acted naive, numb, wretched, sacrificial, bitchy, sly, and starving, but I can't say I ever saw her play stupid. Until now. In Birth, Jonathan Glazer's follow-up to Sexy Beast, Kidman's Anna is a rich, young widow with the intellect and posture of a Canadian goose. She less resembles Kidman than a weird elongation of Mia Farrow looks, Julianne Moore wetness, and Marilyn Monroe ditz. Anna is marrying longtime suitor Joseph (Danny Huston), though it's apparent she hasn't finished grieving for her husband Sean, who keeled over years before. Then a 10-year-old boy named Sean (Cameron Bright) shows up in her house claiming to be her dead husband. Not only does Anna begin to believe him, but she invites him to stay at her house and initiates a conversation about how he might meet her "needs."
Now, I have a son, and if some 35-year-old stranger tried to lure his young self to a sleepover, I'd slap her with a restraining order faster than she could say, "Whoopsie!" I had my foot firmly pressed on the brake pedal for more than an hour of the movie, attempting to stop it from going where it kept hinting it was going. Thus I'm even less dependable than usual as an objective reviewer for your one-stop shopping.
That quibble aside, Birth very efficiently argues that evil can be born out of garden-variety self-absorption and inanity--that it may be more commonly derived from those sources than from twisted genius, the movies' usual bad-seed breeding ground. I don't mean simply the Evil of pedophilia, but the small "e" types: controlling and violent men, spiteful women, neglectful or over-involved parents (the latter cases represented by Sean's frazzled mother, played by Cara Seymour, and Anna's grande dame mom, played by Lauren Bacall). The New York where Anna is a princess appears a fairly wormy apple (no surprise, really, given Sexy Beast's cold mobster milieu).
Birth's soundtrack wavers between cheerful classical and a pummeling synth-bass bump that thunderously announces Anna's feverish descent into belief. The music's mixture of comfort and adrenalized horror is the law of this land: Once-luxurious homes become places of violent disarray; private baths are invaded by taboo sensuality; a boy's enjoyment of ice cream slides into seductive tease. People set up as trustworthy suddenly expose crueler faces. Then they slip the old ones back on. And so on. Is the young Sean a boy with a crush? A scary obsession? Or is he the living embodiment of the dead husband? When you think you've figured it out, it's not what you think.
As photographed here, Kidman-as-Anna models at least three distinct faces. Director of photography Harris Savides, who won awards for Gus Van Sant's Elephant, shoots her more attractive side and the other, less celebrated one, which looks pinched and flat. He tracks her close up and straight on for long stretches and finds the same kind of gorgeous hollowness, the shallow mask (hiding what?), that made Elephant's portraits so disturbing. Kidman can enact heartache profoundly, but in Birth, she performs "heartache." It's as if she's in a commercial, and she--in her "beauty" and "emotionality"--is the product.
Indeed, I could read Birth's theme as the very opposite of its ostensible subject: a love beyond corporate bodies. Sean running before the camera to his death at the start of the film is the audience projected; the richly endowed movie star/princess represents the faked vision of eternal life that every newborn generation of consumers attempts to own. Little Sean's yuckiest aspect must be his super-size possessiveness, which is balanced only by the absence of...well, anything one might call character. Everyone here is whoring her life away to buy a fantasy of life, which is why the action looks senseless and ugly. Then again, I could be just trying to shove some words over the image of a boy and a woman together in a bath.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.