There’s an eternal aesthetic dichotomy when it comes to movies, as much for those who make them as for those who watch them, concerning the importance of story versus visuals. Some find plot to be only an excuse to explore the possibilities of cinema (through cinematography, editing, etc.), others care about the characters first and the artsy stuff later, if at all. Personally, while I’m a sucker for brilliant filmmaking, it doesn’t matter that much if the writing blows.
And thus we come to “Birth”, the sophomore effort from Jonathan Glazer. An acclaimed music video and commercial director, Glazer’ feature debut Sexy Beast was unsurprisingly gorgeously crafted, but it also had a smart screenplay. What do you think helped Sir Ben Kingsley to an Oscar nomination, the way Glazer shot his bald head or the ballsy dialogue he made his so intensely? With “Birth”, Glazer confirms what an amazing visualist he is but unfortunately, the script just isn’t there.
Nicole Kidman stars as Anna, a young widow who’s about to remarry when a strange little boy enters her life uninvited. His name is Sean, like Anna’s late husband, whose death ten years before coincided with the boy’s birth. Are they one and the same, a spirit reincarnated?
This is a crazy premise, no doubt, but the movie does allow skepticism, expects it even. The people on screen find this situation as silly as we do in the audience. Everyone keeps asking Sean questions, testing him, saying this cannot be… That’s initially a good thing, as it mirrors our reactions, but at some point it becomes tedious. Ok! Either we go with it or we don’t, stop tergiversating! I don’t mind the crazy premise, really, but it doesn’t go anywhere.
Anne eventually starts believing that her dead husband has come back to her and there’s potential for a weird but touching romantic fantasy, but Anna and Sean’s eternal love doesn’t register much. I mean, how much sexual tension can there be between a grown woman and a 10 year old, even if they’re taking a bath together? In any case, even if the movie dangles all kinds of unhealthy possibilities, in the end it goes for the most half-assed, boring resolution.
So, as far as the script goes, “Birth” is inconsequential and forgettable. Then again, if shot composition and art direction is what you’re most interested in, there is some extraordinary work on display here. There’s the extended overture, in which Anna’s husband runs through Central Park, striking under snow and ice, then mysteriously collapses. There’s a great sex scene (not with the kid, mind you!), with the camera pulling back over the fiancé on top of Anna, giving a good approximation of what it might be like to make love to Nicole Kidman and her long legs. And what about that long close-up of Kidman at the opera, her face filling the screen for minutes as she sits there, silent but conveying many nuances of emotion in her eyes and face…
Glazer’s direction is splendid, and for some that might be enough to make “Birth” a satisfying viewing experience, but I couldn’t get over the flawed storytelling.