Nicole Kidman gives a tortured, self-conscious performance in this disconcerting, lovely, and frustrating 2004 film by Sexy Beast director Jonathan Glazer. Approached by a creepily self-contained ten-year-old boy named Sean (Cameron Bright) who claims to be her reincarnated dead husband, Anna (Kidman) and her fiancé, Joseph (Danny Huston) are at first flummoxed by the boy's appearance and laugh it off. But when the kid just won't go away, Anna becomes convinced that Sean is the real thing, and her growing obsession takes a toll on her relationship with those around her. Birth is a tough film to critique without giving away the ending, because Glazer's heavily atmospheric film promises so much juicy ickiness with its supernatural, French-art-film-by-way-of-Stanley Kubrick tone that it's a downer when you discover the whole thing has been one long piece of pointless window dressing. So thin and bony that she looks like she might fall over from exhaustion at any moment, Kidman, channeling Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby from her pixie haircut to her wispy, ineffectual mannerisms gives an impressive performance as a woman who's forced to rethink her feelings about her lover, the circumstances of her life and, um, how to manage an adult relationship with a ten-year-old. But beyond that, there's ultimately little substance to the film. To Glazer's credit, Anna has a life and family outside of this bizarre incident (in direct opposition to the Hollywood movie rule that people in weird situations must have no friends or relatives to turn to for advice, existing as they do in a social vacuum). Unfortunately, however, Glazer's so intent on evoking mood and playing with his camera that he forgot to give any of these people personalities Anna's brother-in-law (Arliss Howard) and pregnant sister (Laura) are around to ask what the hell's going on, but we know nothing about them; Anna's mother (Lauren Bacall) poses some good, hard questions about why Anna's allowing this weird kid to get to her, but who's the other old lady at the family dinners? An aunt? Mom's lover? She has two or three lines, and we never find out just what, exactly, she's doing there. More character development but not much is given to Anna's friend Clifford (Peter Stormare, doing his standard dour stoicism shtick) and his scary wife Clara (Anne Heche), who harbors some sort of a secret and has the only backstory of the bunch.
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There was a great deal of hype on Birth's release about a scene with Kidman sharing a bath with young Sean and a supposedly lascivious kiss, but neither moment is as shocking nor as effective as it ought to be, for the same reason that the film fails as a whole there's no real emotion or risk-taking here, just artifice. Whereas Sexy Beast was brutally smart and edited with assured, whip-shot precision, in his sophomore effort Glazer seems so determined to distance himself from his music-video roots that he concentrates on long, long, long shots that, while pretty to look at, test the viewer's patience. Meanwhile, the actors are directed in such a somber, ponderous fashion that it's easy to believe that something important is being imparted here but, ultimately, Glazer reveals that it's all been just an exercise in slowness and gloom, an empty movie about empty characters without any message or purpose. New Line's DVD release of Birth offers a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) Glazer's visual eye is flawless, no matter what one may think of the story, and it's always gorgeous to look at. Occasionally the print is a bit grainy, but that seems intentional the a chilly color palette is heavy on the browns and grays, but the contrast is excellent. The audio, in Dolby Digital 5.1 or Dolby 2.0 Surround (English, with optional English or Spanish subtitles) is equally good, with not much required of the primarily dialogue-driven film. There are no real extras here, not even a commentary track, just trailers for other New Line releases. Keep-case.
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