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Birth
cast: Nicole Kidman, Cameron Bright, Danny Huston, Lauren Bacall, and Anne Heche

director: Jonathan Glazer

100 minutes (15) 2004
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
EIV DVD Region 2 rental / retail
Also available to rent on video

RATING: 2/10
reviewed by Andrew Hook
I should preface this review by stating that I like art films. I enjoy films which toy with an audience's perception and which contain psychological insights into their characters without having to blow buildings up to do so. So I approached Birth with some enthusiasm and an open mind, and that's where things started to go wrong.

Many of the other reviews I've seen have described the subtle and understated pace of the movie. Let's take a look at the opening scene: a tracking shot follows a man jogging through a snow-filled park. Entering the mouth of a tunnel he dies of natural causes. The next shot is of a baby being born underwater. The caption: "ten years later" fills the screen. There's subtlety for you!

The central premise of this movie is that ten years after her husband's death Anna (Nicole Kidman) has become engaged to her new love, Joseph (Danny Hutson). At her birthday party a ten-year-old boy (Cameron Bright) arrives and announces that he is Sean - her dead husband reincarnated. The remainder of the movie is concerned with how Anna deals with his persistent affirmations of this belief, as she gradually succumbs to believing it herself.

Jonathan Glazer's direction is incredibly noncommittal. One wonders if he knew why he was making the film. In its favour, Birth doesn't work the easy supernatural route, but instead takes the psychological path. However, where this could have been an effective examination of Anna's inability to get over the loss of her husband, the movie is undermined because we have not seen her previous relationship. We know nothing about Sean at all before he died - either visually in flashback or in conversation. There are also no telltale signs that her relationship with Joseph is a cover-up for her grief. It is therefore quite impossible for the viewer to connect with Anna. Compounding this difficulty we also know nothing of the boy prior to him making his assertion. The film is devoid of genuine emotion, and due to the lack of any emotional context we find that we simply do not care whether the boy is Sean or not.

Cameron Bright is adequate in his role, although he has to do little other than look overly serious and repeat his belief. But there is no chemistry between him and Anna. And even if we accept the assumption that Anna has convinced herself that he is Sean, then the subsequent suggestion that she might 'fall in love with him all over again' is high farce. Regardless of any other considerations, he is a ten-year-old boy. Perhaps the suggestion is that love transcends appearances. That love can exist completely without any physical attraction. But if so then the film is solely a metaphor. It needs to be more than that.

Anna's extended family, currently - conveniently - are all living under one roof (the movie is reminiscent of a stageplay), and do almost nothing to actively dissuade her from her feelings. Lauren Bacall is the most convincing, with touches of humour at the situation beneath her stoic appearance, but it falls to Joseph to finally release some tension despite his actions working against him.

Whilst it might be acceptable to consider that the movie is simply a flawed thesis on guilt, the pivotal role of Anne Heche, and the nature of her previous relationship with the dead Sean, subsequently throws everything into confusion. Glazer seems to believe that flipping the movie on its head can turn our perception inside out, but this is where logic and incredulity collide, further undermining any interest which might have been sustained.

So the film fails on all levels except for the beautiful cinematography, and the excellent musical score by Alexandre Desplat. It attempts to be a Bergmanesque psychological study, but without that director's touch we are left with stilted parlour scenes, lengthy shots of people looking blank, and obscure metaphors. For this movie to work we have to be convinced that either the boy or Anna believe wholeheartedly in the premise. And we don't. We don't to such a degree that it becomes laughable.

There are movies, such as the excellent Donnie Darko, which are open to numerous interpretations and reinterpretations. Birth falls into that camp but due to its total implausibility, monumentally inert acting, and nonsensical contradictory plotting, the main discussion after viewing is over how good it could have been. If only this was the examination of grief, bewilderment, perception and enchantment that it purports to be. Instead we're left with the slops.
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