For 10 years, Anna (Nicole Kidman) has been in deep mourning over the loss of her husband, Sean. Now on the eve of marrying another man (Danny Huston), Anna's life is turned upside down when a mysterious 10-year-old boy (Cameron Bright, "Godsend") walks into her apartment claiming to be Sean reincarnated. The boy knows Anna's intimate secrets and upsets her family with his persistence; to Anna, this just might be the opportunity to reclaim the love she thought was lost forever, and she struggles deeply with the potential reality of the situation.
"Birth" (IMDb listing) is a film of mystery and a mediation on the amber afterglow of mourning. A beautiful dramatic movement directed by Jonathan Glazer (his follow-up to "Sexy Beast"), "Birth" is a meticulous film that moves glacially, but holds attention with a Hulk-sized grip for every moment of its running time. It's a wonderful movie, carefully made, and consistently rewarding.
However, "Birth" doesn't answer the questions it often poses. Normally, this would come as a great concern, since so much of the plot features a gently threaded mystery that seems to be leading to a great revelation. The revelation never comes, and for audience members who desire constant payoff, "Birth" will provoke confusion and possibly disappointment. "Birth" is unfailing in its desire to keep an arm's length toward the young Sean character. There is little direct questioning of the boy; no, "Hey, 10-year-old boy, what the hell is going on?" scene that is dying to be asked. "Birth" is far more understated; keeping to the quiet roads of introspection to sell the dramatic upheaval this child creates. Glazer's calm, autumnal, orchestra-infused atmosphere does wonders to fight the nagging questions the film raises. In fact, the beautiful filmmaking and scoring (by Alexandre Desplat) erases most concerns by film's end.
"Birth" is quite different in tone from the thrusting madness of "Sexy Beast," but Glazer is such a particular talent, one would never know these two films are from the same filmmaker. Glazer manages "Birth" as if he were lost in a trance, electing to use long takes of important moments, allowing the audience to get a full portrait of the emotional toll that is being taken on the characters. The film positively lulls with its soft, brave tone, hurdling over potential hot spot sequences, such as when young Sean invites himself into a bath with Anna. Because of Glazer's considerate eye, the tricky moment becomes one of lost intimacy, not indecency.
It's easy to praise Nicole Kidman for her strong acting, but her performance in "Birth" is a chilling reminder of just how complex an actress she can be. Anna requires Kidman to be a silent witness to this insanity; keeping an even tone until the seduction of the reincarnation concept is so alluring, she bursts with wild rantings of belief and future plans. Glazer is smart enough to simply keep the camera trained on Kidman for extended periods (including one extraordinary take at a concert that lasts for several minutes), letting the actress' expressive facial work do all the heavy lifting. It's a sublime performance.
Glazer's additional casting is inspired. Famed bad guys Peter Stormare and Arliss Howard are handed gentle roles, with both actors eating up the change. I also liked an appearance from Anne Heche, who plays a pivotal role in the film as Anna's sister-in-law. But outside of Kidman, Danny Huston really puts in his due as the husband-to-be that might never be. Huston, coming off his quizzical work in John Sayles' "Silver City," has a tough role as the frustrated fiancee, and his eventual fury over the situation (think how an adult typically punishes a child) is the perfect release this film needs.
"Birth" climaxes as mysteriously as it begins, exiting on a final shot of such unusual catharsis that it closes the picture on an unsuspecting brilliant note. This isn't an easy film by any means, and I suggest great caution in approaching it. "Birth" rewards with a deep-seated exploration of grief and operatic filmmaking that is all too rare in the current film climate.
Filmfodder Grade: A