It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that Birth is so good. It’s directed by Jonathan Glazer, who’s 2000 film Sexy Beast was a great debut, and written by the great John-Claude Carrier, who I most associate with Luis Bunuel, but whose filmography is varied beyond that.
It’s kind of crazy that I feel like I’m in the minority when I say that Nicole Kidman is a great actress. I’ve always been a fan, but feel like I defend her frequently in cinematic conversations. She’s talented and takes on interesting roles. This is one of those, and it’s probably my favorite performance of hers. The rest of the cast – Lauren Bacall, Danny Huston, Anne Heche, and a fantastic 11 year-old Cameron Bright – are also spot-on.
Some of the rest of what’s below contains SPOILERS.
Anna (Kidman) loses her husband, but ten years later, when she’s already set to be married to Joseph (Huston), a young boy (Bright) shows up at her door claiming to be her dead husband.
There’s an interesting script decision right off the bat. At a house party to announce their engagement, Clara (Heche), suddenly has to leave. Glazer follows her to Central Park where she buries something. He cuts to young Sean watching. All of this takes place before young Sean’s claim that he’s Anna’s deceased husband. Based off of this early scene I guess the denouement of the film. The odd thing is that it didn’t detract from the overall picture. That information – that Sean probably was able to get his hands on some kind of secret information, potentially about Anna – doesn’t work against what is Glazer’s one of many theses.
What would be the difference, I wonder, if Glazer and Carriere had withheld that information, as in a more standard thriller? For one, we’d be less suspicious of both young Sean and Clara. More so, however, this intro (not the prologue; more on that below) is sort of a bravura move by the filmmaker. It’s a “look – I can give you crucial information and then suck you so into the story that showing my hand is rendered irrelevant.” It totally works.
More script stuff. I’m always amazed when really short scenes work. Birth features one of the better ones I’ve seen recently. After Anna is fully under young Sean’s spell, he and Anna’s mother Eleanor (Bacall, ageless and awesome, as always), sit out in the latter’s hallway. The whole scene probably lasts about 8 seconds. Eleanor has the only line: “I never liked Sean.” It’s perfectly placed. It shows her sympathy for the young boy, whose charlatanism she’s convinced of in that she basically favors him over the dead man, and also demonstrates the separation between mother and daughter, a tension that rises, albeit slightly, as the film progresses.
Kidman’s Anna is a pixie of a character. Her short haircut is not only a coiffure frequently sported by the actress, but also works thematically. Is Anna, though several decades older than young Sean, actually as impressionable as the young boy? Is she the child and he the adult? Young Sean, for his part, has such a straight, stone face. His performance is great, and he only smiles once – for a class picture long after his “relationship” with Anna is over.
Glazer’s got some real technique. Here’s the prologue to the film:
The shot starts at about 0:52, following an ironic voiceover over black, and doesn’t cut until about 2:33. It’s gorgeously orchestrated with the snow, the rhythm, and Alexandre Desplat’s score. It’s also a bit of a journey to reach death (i.e. life –> death). I’m sure others have commented that the tunnel that comes in at 2:33 is perhaps reminiscent of a very man-made birth canal, but it’s the blocking of this shot that I love. We just see Sean running the distance. The camera pulls back (2:44), anticipating his arrival to the darkness, and cueing us that something important is about to happen. It’s all quite operatic. It reminded me a bit of I Am Love in its grandiosity and expressiveness. This was all shot, of course, by the late, great Harris Savides.
Here’s my favorite part of the film. It’s the type of shot I’ve long wanted to try. You’ve got to have some guts to pull this off as director, and some real skill as actor. Luckily Glazer and Kidman are both up to task. As Anna and Joseph arrive at the theater after an encounter with young Sean, Glazer pushes into a close-up of Anna. The shot starts at 1:20, lands in close-up at 1:54, and ends at 3:44. If you only include the span where we can easily see Anna’s features, that’s a near 3-minute close-up:
I love this because, as mentioned above, it’s risky. The audience is required to intuit quite a bit of Anna’s emotions. There’s no cut to reaction shots – a lesser film would’ve cut to Joseph’s concerned face, or the stage as the action ramps according to Anna’s emotions. And look at that performance! Kidman somehow manages to go through a huge range of emotions with the slightest of movements, and without ever feeling histrionic. It’s understated, poignant, and beautifully staged all at once. I love this moment!