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Courtship of the living dead 

Nicole Kidman gets some disturbing news when a 10-year-old boy announces that he is the reincarnation of her recently deceased husband in Birth.

The director of 'Sexy Beast' botches a May-December reincarnation

Jonathan Glazer's debut feature, Sexy Beast, was a surprising first effort from a man who made his break in music videos. The film offered some bold visual images, but it worked because of brilliant acting and chemistry; without the furiously profane Ben Kingsley and Ray Winstone's contentedly retired criminal, the picture would not have amounted to much.

Glazer's follow-up, Birth, comes with some of the same requirements: Its premise is so difficult that only pitch-perfect acting in the central role can sell it - but a single virtuoso performance isn't enough; in this case the star truly needs her supporting cast to help craft some illusions. Things never manage to gel completely, but it's an intriguing effort.

The difficult premise is this: Nicole Kidman has just become engaged after an appropriate mourning period for a dead husband. As the news becomes public, Kidman is approached by a young boy who claims to be the dead spouse. "You can't marry him," he says solemnly, "I'm your husband." Unlike most body-swap tales, this one isn't played for magical whimsy; it takes quite a while for Kidman and those around her to decide what to think of this claim, and it's certainly not fun and games once a decision is made.

One handicap for the film is that the child groom is played by Cameron Bright, star of the lousy The Omen-meets-gene-splicing science fiction flick Godsend. Here, as there, he plays a new human housing the spirit of a dead one. Unfortunately for those of us who suffered through the first film, his performance in Birth is so leadenly similar that the echoes are impossible to ignore. In Bright's defense, the screenwriters have done less than they could have to sell the character's unique problems. Why, for instance, can he remember some parts of his past life and not others?

Dir. Jonathan Glazer; writ. Glazer, Milo Addica, Jean-Claude Carriére; feat. Nicole Kidman, Cameron Bright, Danny Huston, Lauren Bacall, Anne Heche, Peter Stormare, Ted Levine (R)
Kidman does her noble best to carry the weight, but it's not quite enough. Late in the plot, the focus shifts: Glazer is less interested in the supernatural switcheroo than in what this scenario is doing to Kidman's mind. She's going a little crazy, letting her understandable eagerness to accept this miracle push her into itchy situations. She lets the 10-year-old bathe with her, for instance - there's a scene that will send shudders up many spines - and quizzes him about how he will address her "needs" should she accept him as her soul mate. The actress is working hard, but her performance is too internal; while it's appropriate for Kidman to withdraw from her fiancé and family, we need to see some kind of connection between widow and husband. It's unclear whether Bright could have managed this, but Kidman doesn't give him much help.

The movie holds some mysteries and complicated interpersonal relationships that keep viewers engaged, but its sterile, airtight tone indicates that it wants to be something more than it is. The director reveals his ambitions, for instance, in a concert hall sequence where he holds Kidman's face in an outrageously long close up - this ain't storytelling, he's saying (in case viewers forgot the allegory-friendly title), this is art. Glazer's missteps in Sexy Beast did less damage, largely because the cast had built up some meaningful relationships with the audience.

Birth isn't a bad film, it's just not a successful one. It puts pressure on Glazer to prove himself next time around, while giving movie lovers just enough reason to pay attention to the effort.

By John DeFore

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January 13, 2020

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