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Promising ‘Birth’ Goes Wrong Mid-Delivery

by Chris Bellamy
At the beginning she's happy.
The creepy boy appears.
She cries.
Now you'll have to go see it.

Fine Line Features
Directed by Jonathan Glazer
Written by Jean-Claude Carriere, Milo Addica and Jonathan Glazer
Produced by Lizie Gower, Nick Morris, Jean-Louis Piel and Wang Wei
Starring Nicole Kidman, Cameron Bright, Danny Huston, Lauren Bacall, Anne Heche, and Peter Stormare
Rated R

(out of four)

He sneaks in to Anna’s apartment practically unnoticed. He stands in the doorway as Anna’s mother blows out the candles on a birthday cake, and when the lights flip on, there he is, a 10-year-old boy in a room full of grown adults. "I need to talk to Anna," he says. "In private." They go to the kitchen, she closes the door and asks, "What do you want?" "You," he answers, and he proceeds to tell her that he is Sean, her former husband who died 10 years earlier.

Naturally, she thinks this is just some joke, but he persists, even going so far as to tell her that she is making a terrible mistake in marrying Joseph (Danny Huston), Anna’s current fiancee. While Anna (Nicole Kidman) can hardly put much stock in such a claim, the boy’s (Cameron Bright) presence clearly affects her—even if only through memories of the real Sean. After all, it’s not every day that a fourth-grader suddenly shows up claiming to be your dead spouse. She angrily ushers him out of the apartment and out of the building. "Don’t bother me again," she scolds.

Jonathan Glazer’s "Birth" has been characterized as a "thriller," but I wouldn’t call it that exactly. Its goals reach far beyond cheap thrills or even genre filmmaking. This is a mood piece, and for a while there, it’s quite a good one. For a solid hour or so, "Birth" is fascinating. Not so much in the plot itself—plenty of films have been made using similar storylines—but in the way Glazer approaches it. Instead of moving the plot along quickly and focusing on what the characters do, Glazer focuses on what they feel. The camera spends a lot of time on Anna’s face, and during those long pauses and painful silences, Kidman speaks to us with her eyes.

After one particular meeting with Sean (which, coincidentally, is actually the kid’s name), there is a breathtaking close-up of Anna as she and Joseph take in the opera. I wish I’d had a stopwatch with me at the time so I would know how long the shot lasts—two minutes? Three or four? For the length of the shot, we watch her face gradually change as she slowly descends into tears. We begin to feel a sudden distance growing between Anna and Joseph. This is the best and most important moment in "Birth," and it’s scenes like this that make the film so promising. In a time when so many films treat emotion like an afterthought, it’s refreshing to see a movie that focuses on it so boldly.

So it’s unfortunate that, when the story finally does need to be moved along and requires a bit of explanation, the filmmakers don’t know quite how to do it. Anna and the rest of her family soon discover that Sean knows a bit too much about the real Sean – he seems to know things only the real Sean would know. Logically, Anna tries to tell herself that this "reincarnation" of sorts is preposterous. But the more she talks to him, and the more she begins obsessing about the memories she shared with her husband, the more she starts to believe this unusual little boy.

The little boy himself is where Glazer first goes wrong. Bright proves he can act, but his character is decidedly one-note, from the very beginning all the way through the final "explanation," or whatever you want to call it. Even then, after a significant revelation, Sean has no discernible reaction whatsoever. Sean doesn’t seem to have any emotions at all. He speaks in monotone, he never raises his voice above a normal decibel level, he never smiles or frowns or cries or screams. He’s just there. At first it’s effective because it makes us a bit uncomfortable. But after a while the effect wears off, and what we’re left with is not a person, but a blank, hollow imitation of one.

As the film progresses, Anna becomes more and more convinced of Sean’s identity and, as she says, begins falling in love with him all over again. But I can’t really figure out why – they rarely have a real conversation that two normal people would actually have. Mostly, she asks him questions, he gives creepy, jarring answers, and that’s it. They never really talk.

The final 30 or 40 minutes are pretty much a mess—and aren’t nearly as confident as the first hour of the film. Anna becomes conflicted between this 10-year-old boy and her 40-something fiancee. Joseph becomes jealous and attacks Sean in an interesting scene in their apartment. Anna makes a critical decision – one that I can’t quite believe given how rational and intelligent we know her character to be. The old Sean’s brother and his wife are brought into the fray and play a crucial role. Anna and Sean even share a kiss—and a bathtub, in an unfairly controversial scene (which is handled with care and taste). All of this adds up to be a disjointed attempt to tie things together—up to and including the story’s surprisingly lame explanation. In a film that begins with so much conviction, it’s a pity how it all ends up.

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