Jonathan Glazer could not possibly have chosen a more different film — or a more different approach — for a follow-up to his debut feature, Sexy Beast, than Birth. Where Sexy Beast was an aggressively loud film, Birth is an understated one that seems to have been made while the filmmaker was channeling Stanley Kubrick. Spielberg may have been the one to bring Kubrick’s final project, A.I., to fruition, but Glazer has created a work that seems more fully in Kubrick’s style.
The result is probably the most simultaneously brilliant and screwed-up filmmaking in recent memory. Glazer appears to have inherited not only most of Kubrick’s strengths, but also his weaknesses.
The film is gorgeous to look at, even though Glazer’s insistence on shooting on high-speed-film stock in low-light situations produces some distractingly grainy images. In Kubrick terms, think Barry Lyndon. The camera glides effortlessly through beautifully appointed, oddly airless and slightly unreal sets. Think A Clockwork Orange, The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut. Birth scores its major points in blending sound and image, with dialogue a decidedly secondary consideration. (The movie’s most powerful scene consists of nothing more than a close focus on Nicole Kidman’s face as she tries to come to grips with her emotions while attending an opera performance of Wagner’s Die Walkure.) Think 2001, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining.
Along with these strengths, however, comes a Kubrickian distancing that makes it hard to actually care what’s happening to the characters. Kubrick tended to overcome this problem with either shrewd casting or a strong script, but this is where Glazer goes awry. Aside from Nicole Kidman, Lauren Bacall and Anne Heche, the bulk of the performances are rarely more than adequate. Cameron Bright is just too creepy to elicit much sympathy as the 10-year-old Sean, who claims to be the reincarnation of Anna’s (Kidman) dead husband. The singularly charmless Danny Huston copes gamely with the role of Anna’s much put-upon fiance, Joseph, but he’s so wooden that young Sean’s admonition, “Don’t marry Joseph,” seems to make good sense.
And then there’s the screenplay. Birth purports to be a thriller with supernatural overtones, but as it develops, it’s impossible not to wonder where Glazer and his co-writers, Milo Addica and Jean-Claude Carriere, think they’re going with this. How do you resolve a story about a 10-year-old boy who seems to be the reincarnation of someone’s husband? What if it turns out to be true? It’s one thing to flirt with the idea of a romance between the kid and 37-year-old Kidman, even when you can craft a fairly tasteful scene in which the two share a bath. It’s something else to try to cook up an acceptable solution.
When Anna hits on the risible idea that the pair could run away and then wait 10 years, it becomes painfully obvious that the story is headed for a dead end with a vengeance. So rather than brazen it out, the script cheats and comes up with a resolution that’s on a par with those “rational” explanations one finds in so many silent horror pictures.
Still, this might have worked, if the viewer doesn’t ask too many questions and had the film had the courage of its art-house convictions to end about 15 minutes before it does. But no, Glazer wants to explain too much, and winds up with something that might have (barely) passed muster but for a cheesy ending that tries to bring the film back to the supernatural. It’s almost as though he wanted to duplicate the one weak link in The Shining — where the whole film could be read as the study of a descent into communicable madness, except for the tricky question, “Then who let Jack out of the pantry?”
However, for all its admitted shortcomings, Birth is a daunting, daring piece of filmmaking, with a tremendous central performance from Kidman and a crafty, earthy one from Bacall that help ground the film in a sense of reality. And like the best of Kubrick’s work, Glazer’s film is such a rich blend of music and haunting imagery that it’s possible to forgive most of its false steps. It’s certainly not for everyone, but then what film that’s worth having is?
– reviewed by Ken Hanke