Film Reviews


By • Oct 29th, 2004 •

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New Line Productions / 100 mins

QUOTE: Compelling and emotionally riveting. I have now forgiven Kidman for THE STEPFORD WIVES and next year’s BEWITCHED.

Unlike THE FORGOTTEN and THE GRUDGE, BIRTH is a superior supernatural story set in Manhattan that is drenched in emotion. Through the skillful manipulation of the director’s use of music, cinematography, scenery, and orchestrated mood, I was often moved to tears. Director Jonathan Glazer, whose first film was the terrific SEXY BEAST, has structured an elegant film rich in subtext and possessing something I admire: A strong, personal point of view.

Anna (Nicole Kidman) is still grieving over the sudden death of her husband Sean ten years ago. She and her wealthy, tuxedo-wearing fiancé Joseph (Danny Huston) live in a huge New York City Central Park West mansion with her mother Eleanor (Lauren Bacall), her pregnant sister Laura (Alison Elliot) and Laura’s doctor husband Bob (Arliss Howard). Apparently Laura and Bob are renovating their mansion. There is also a live-in maid. The only people who do not live in the mansion are Sean’s older brother Clifford (Peter Stormare) and his wife Clara (Anne Heche).

On the night of Anna and Joseph’s engagement party a very somber 10-year-old boy, also named Sean (Cameron Bright), shows up and announces he is Anna’s dead husband. He does not want her to marry Joseph. Even though they dismiss him as a child, Sean starts sending Anna notes.

[Coincidentally, my husband has been getting postcards – hundreds of words of distress crammed on the card – from someone in New York City claiming to be his wife. Unlike Anna, my husband is completely uninterested in entertaining any contact with this seriously disturbed woman. It is I who retrieves and reads the discarded missives from the garbage.]

Sean is so firm in his resolve, and knows so many intimate details about his life with Anna, that she is intrigued. She is reluctant to make a commitment to Joseph and this enigma has conveniently presented itself to deter the marriage. And, what if it really is Sean?

While we might push aside such a silly notion, isn’t Nobel Prize winner His Holiness the Dalai Lama the acknowledged reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama? His Holiness was recognized as the deceased 13th Dalai Lama at the age of two. The boy was chosen after he noticed that a rosary one of the traveling lamas was wearing belonged to him. He was given a series of tests that included the choosing of correct articles that had once been the property of the 13th Dalai Lama. In furtherance of this tradition, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, born in 1989, was proclaimed as the true reincarnation of the late 10th Panchen Lama, the second highest spiritual leader of Tibet, when he was just six years old. In May 14, 1995, His Holiness the Dalai Lama officially recognized Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the 11th Panchen Lama.

Obviously, it happens.

Glazer collaborated on the story with French writer Jean-Claude Carrière who had worked on two books with the Dalai Lama. The screenwriters, including Milo Addica, leave dogma and theory out of the story. They have fashioned an intensely emotional conundrum: If this kid is indeed Sean, what should Anna do?

Anna becomes interested in Sean because his resolve is charming and intoxicating. She begins to spend time with him. Sean treats her as his wife. The scenes between Anna and Sean are riveting. Joseph, rightly insecure about Anna’s love for him anyhow, starts to unravel. Anna comes to believe Sean is her dead husband come back to life.

What Anna decides to do, and the twist that comes, are quite remarkable. Here is where most films fall apart, but BIRTH does not. It falls to one’s belief in the phenomenon of reincarnation if you accept the film’s resolution.

I know Dr. Ian Stevenson, the foremost scholar on reincarnation. For the last forty years Dr. Stevenson (former head of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia, and now Director of the Division of Personality Studies at the University of Virginia) has collected scientific documentation of past life memories of children from all over the world. He has over 3000 cases in his files. Many people, including skeptics and scholars, agree that these cases offer the best evidence yet for reincarnation.

However, why don’t all of us remember?

Kidman is electrifying and has a real, believable chemistry with her 10 year-old co-star. I completely understood her actions as well as the much discussed scenes between Anna and Sean. Anne Heche is equally persuasive and Lauren Bacall has not one, but two, great lines of dialogue that she delivers as the legend she is.

Glazer’s intense focus is mesmerizing. He uses extreme close-ups which unmasks the emotions underneath the characters. His skill as a director is on display here through the menace this young boy brings to an idyllic family, secure in their insular, wealthy world. As Glazer showed in SEXY BEAST with Ben Kingsley’s provocative performance, he can bring out the brilliance in actors. He secures his place as an innovative artist with BIRTH.

Anna: Nicole Kidman
Young Sean: Cameron Bright
Joseph: Danny Huston
Eleanor: Lauren Bacall
Laura: Alison Elliot
Bob: Arliss Howard
Sean: Michael Seautels
Clara: Anne Heche
Clifford: Peter Stormare

Director: Jonathan Glazer
Screenwriters: Jean-Claude Carriere, Milo Addica, Jonathan Glazer
Producers: Jean-Louis Piel, Nick Morris, Lizie Gower
Executive producers: Kerry Orent, Mark Ordesky, Xavier Marchand
Director of photography: Harris Savides
Production designer: Kevin Thompson
Editors: Sam Sneade, Claus Wehlisch
Costume designer: John Dunn
Music: Alexandre Desplat

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