Judge Diane Wild thinks birth is beautiful. Thirty-year-olds taking baths with ten-year-olds...not so beautiful.
Be careful what you wish for.
Birth is a quiet, serious move that treats its surreal, ridiculous premise with respect—and is crafted to demand the same respect from its audience. But the premise has a certain ick factor, since we are forced to accept that a thirty-something-year-old woman believes a ten-year-old boy is the reincarnation of her dead husband.
Facts of the Case
Anna (Nicole Kidman, The Others) has been a widow for ten years, but is finally ready to move on and marry her impatient lover, Joseph (Danny Huston, 21 Grams). That is, until a series of strange encounters with a solemn ten-year-old boy named Sean (Cameron Bright, The Butterfly Effect)—which also happens to be the name of Anna's dead husband. Little Sean claims to be that Sean, and since we saw the death and birth in the opening sequences of the film, the revelation isn't the surprise to the audience that it is to Anna.
Naturally, Anna and her extended family are skeptical of the boy's claims, but after several indications that he knows intimate details he otherwise should have no way of knowing, Anna begins to believe.
Birth shows how its characters react when they believe the unbelievable, and when they believe it because they must, because it's reasonable to believe, because there is no other credible explanation. The audience is put in a position to believe in the premise for the same reasons. But despite that, it's obvious that logic and reason should be on the side of Anna's sarcastic mother Eleanor (Lauren Bacall, Dogville), who believes Sean is lying ("How is Mr. Reincarnation enjoying his cake?"), and sister-in-law Laura (Alison Elliot), who points out the real-world wrongness of Anna's intentions ("it's illegal").
So half of our brain tells us that Anna must be right, this must be the reincarnation of her dead husband, and the other half tells us that's a ridiculous idea, and neither half actually gets vindicated in the course of the movie. The explanations for what is happening don't quite add up, but there's no real reason they should—this is a film going for realism with a surreal plot. And ambiguity is not a sin.
Throughout, we know that we haven't been given all the answers. We know there's a significance to the actions of Anna's former friend Clara (Anne Heche, John Q), but we don't know what. Every action, every stillness, every word, every silence in the movie is infused with weight and an eerie tone that keeps us off balance and intrigued. Often pretentious and cold, with clipped, theatrical dialogue and movements, Birth nonetheless captivates.
Director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast) does not appear to gravitate towards crowd-pleasing stories, but excels at making the unpalatable intriguing enough to be swallowed. He's well served by the cast, who display some tremendous acting, with their on-camera stillness reflecting a lot going on under the surface. Cameron Bright as Sean is terrific and unchildlike, giving a flat, intense performance that makes his character as much a mystery as a lightening-rod for the events of the film.
A sustained shot of Kidman's face during a concert tells an entire story, as the discordant music coincides with the discordant thoughts flitting across her face. This is the moment when she begins to believe in Sean, and the actress conveys the progression from fragile doubt to grief-tinged belief without words.
Huston's Joseph is charming but slightly sinister. When he finally snaps, it's a reaction to the little boy Sean, not to the dead husband Sean. His belief or not in the reincarnation is beside the point—his hard-won relationship is threatened, but he can't rail against his fiancée's dead husband, or accept that the boy even is that dead husband, without losing ground in her eyes.
A bathtub scene with Kidman and Bright gained some notoriety before the movie's release, but the entire premise is just as creepy—or not—as that one scene. It is handled tastefully and believably, given the unbelievable circumstances, but if the idea offends you even in this fictional context, the execution likely will as well. However, it is no more uncomfortable than the rest of the premise. At one point, when Anna clearly believes the boy and is trying to get her mind around how they can proceed, she also challenges him to accept that a relationship would be impossible.
Anna: "How are you going to fulfill my needs?"
These are uneasy scenes, and they are meant to be. The success of the movie is that we see why Anna believes him, why she wants to try to make it work, and why it's just wrong in so many ways that she's risking everything for her belief.
Overall, both the video quality and the audio only adds to the atmosphere of the movie. Muted colors force certain set pieces to stand out when required, such as a vibrant green sofa mentioned in the dialogue before it appears on screen. The deliberate softness of the image leads me to believe the grain is also a style choice. The repetitive, haunting score by Alexandre Desplat is the only part of the audio to challenge the 5.1 Dolby Digital mix (also available in 2.0), but it effectively renders the silence, sparse dialogue, and occasional environmental effects as well. The only extra is the Interactual player feature, requiring you to install the software on your computer and leading you to three weblinks that are hardly worth the effort.
Birth falls into the category of movies I can admire without particularly liking. It's nicely ambiguous, fitting for its surreal subject matter, and well acted and directed. But for me, there was little reward in following the stylized dialogue or uncomfortable story to its illogical conclusion.
Not guilty, but I'd rather not see this particular DVD in my court again.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
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