Directed by Jonathan Glazer
Nice try! Birth is rooted in a concept with considerable potential: a grieving widow, ten years after her husband’s death, is confronted by a ten-year-old boy claiming to be the reincarnation of her late husband, Sean. The theme the filmmakers appear to be going for is everlasting love – two true soul mates -- who will love one another forever -- regardless of the bodies they inhabit. Nicole Kidman plays Anna, the widow, as a tortured young woman who is cautiously just starting to get over her loss – she plans move on and remarry. At just that point young Sean (Cameron Bright) shows up and slowly convinces Anna – but not this critic – that he is really her deceased husband. What Birth attempts is to create a man-in-a-boy’s-body character so that Anna can fall in love with the man-boy thereby creating the dilemma of what to do about it. It’s a great idea – she sincerely believes that the boy is in fact her husband (he thinks so too) so there’s this huge problem of how to have an adult relationship with a ten-year-old boy.
The critical failure of Birth is that the Sean character doesn’t even come close being believable as an adult man in a boy’s body – he comes across as a sulking, bratty kid. The filmmakers’ idea of how to make him seem mature beyond his years is to give him a blank stare, have him sass his mother, and generally behave in a quietly arrogant fashion. I don’t blame the fine young actor for the problems with the character – the adults involved should have (a) realized that having someone so young portray adult emotions realistically is very difficult – and had an alternative plan in place; and (b) realized early-on that the man-boy thing just wasn’t working and acted accordingly. They could have looked at any scene where he is trying to be this intense strong-but-silent-type man and seen huge problems.
Nicole Kidman’s Anna, the main character, is well set up as the grieving widow in the first few minutes. She then goes through an interesting series of changes as she confronts Sean. At first she’s in denial/disbelief, then she gradually comes to believe in young Sean as her husband. The most interesting aspect of the film is how Anna deals with her family and life once she concludes that Sean is for real. The only problem for me is that I had to suspend disbelief in such a significant way to believe that she was considering disrupting her life to be romantically involved with this morose little ten-year-old. Anna was reacting to the Sean character as it should have been – not as it appeared. And I wasn’t alone – the audience reacted with laughter several times during the Sean character’s intense dramatic scenes – the man-boy thing didn’t seem to work for them either.
OK – I’ve made my point about the big problem with the man-boy character. The concept has so much potential – here’s one way to fix it. Have Sean act like a likeable, normal little boy – not too perfect, but just an engaging kid who just happens be the reincarnation of Anna’s late husband. One of the problems with the Sean character is that he isn’t very likable – it’s hard to understand how -- if this person really is the man Anna loves -- she fell in love with such an antisocial pill in the first place. Next, take out the sexual tension and make their relationship a platonic, transcendent love -- which fits in with an eternal love theme – these two souls belong together even if their relationship is chaste. In the movie there was a conflict between Sean and Anna’s fiancé (Danny Huston). I would leave the conflict in – in the sense that they are competing to be first in her heart -- but just don’t make them sexual competitors.
One scene in Birth is bound to shock some folks. While Anna is taking a bath, Sean comes into the bathroom, takes off his clothes, and gets in the tub with her. The audience doesn’t see full-frontal nudity from either actor but Nicole Kidman is clearly topless and the scene is, without a doubt, designed to project sexual tension – although no explicit sex acts appear on screen. Can you imagine if a male actor in his 30s had a scene like that with a ten-year-old actress? I can’t imagine that any studio would dare release the film.
In spite of that one big problem, Birth has a lot going for it. The cinematography is beautiful – lovely shots of Central Park in the snow and many nice looking interior scenes – Anna and her family live in a large, luxury apartment in Manhattan – the filmmakers did a nice job of inserting some lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous eye candy. Nicole Kidman put in a great performance – the only problem was that the context – this man-boy that she loved – is so severely flawed. There are also some interesting plot twists toward the end that would have knocked me for a loop had I bought into the basic premise of the film. Birth is a pretty film in the visual sense. If it sounds interesting you should see it on the big screen. I can’t recommend it but it’s a well-crafted movie in many ways.
Photographs are copyright New Line Cinema.
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