Difficult, rewarding `Birth'


October 29, 2004|By Kenneth Turan | Kenneth Turan,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Birth might be more accurately called "Rebirth." Lit up by an incandescent Nicole Kidman performance, this adventurous film, daring and frustrating by turn, uses cinematic skill to raise provocative questions about love, belief, memory and reincarnation. It's as unsettling and unusual as anything you're likely to see.

The directorial skill belongs to Jonathan Glazer, who elaborates on the notion of a woman (Kidman) confronted by a 10-year-old boy who convincingly insists he's the reincarnation of her dead husband.

Though the narrative thrust of Birth deals with whether or not this boy's claims can be believed, its subtext is if anything more fascinating. How would we react if the fantasy of rebirth turned into something like a nightmare, if the person we loved came back in a different form?

Glazer turns this wildly implausible notion into something we are impelled to take seriously. If Birth is not a wire-to-wire success, the skill and intensity with which it's done make it more involving than some more conventionally successful efforts. It's so good at what it does that it finally paints itself into a corner other films don't have the skill to get anywhere near.

One of the reasons is Kidman's success as a widow named Anna, whom we meet 10 years after her husband's death. The actress is so ferociously caught up in the drama that we are forced to believe in it as well.

Before we get to Anna, we watch her husband, Sean, jogging through Manhattan's snowy Central Park on the way to his demise. It's a bravura tracking shot, and it demonstrates from the get-go what an impeccable eye and true visual flair Glazer and his team are going to bring to the material. Glazer also wonderfully layers in music (by composer Alexander Desplat as well as Richard Wagner) throughout the film, using it to underline emotion in unexpected ways.

A decade after Sean's demise, Anna is about to be married to Joseph (Danny Huston), a suitor who fits in well with her wealthy Upper East Side clan headed by mother, Eleanor, (Lauren Bacall). A swank engagement party is unfolding, one that seems to discomfort her late husband Sean's old friends Clara and Clifford (Anne Heche and Peter Stormare) as much as it cheers Anna's sister and her husband (Alison Elliot and Arliss Howard).

Into this room walks another Sean. We've seen him in the lobby of Anna's building, and now he's in her apartment, insisting "It's me, Sean, you're my wife" and saying she should not marry Joseph.

Naturally, the adults are prone to laugh this off, but, as beautifully played by the unblinkingly somber Cameron Bright, this 10-year-old with an adult's gravitas and an uncanny knowledge of the other Sean's life, is impossible to laugh off.

Gradually, implacably, Joseph and Anna find their lives impacted by this insistent figure. Huston, badly miscast in John Sayles' recent Silver City, comes back with a vengeance as Anna's increasingly shaken fiance, projecting a combination of oily uncertainty and dismayed rectitude that perfectly capture a complex character.

What the intelligently spooky Birth does best is disturb us, not just with scenes like Anna and the young Sean sharing a tub, but by making us consider possibilities we'd rather not. If the film ends up making debatable plot choices that dilute its impact, it's a tribute to how much we've come to care that we find them unpalatable.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.


Starring Nicole Kidman, Cameron Bright, Danny Huston, Lauren Bacall

Directed by Jonathan Glazer

Rated R (sexuality, vulgarity)

Released by New Line Features

Time 100 minutes

Sun Score ***

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