by Jay Seaver
I've listened to very few DVD commentary tracks; it is, after all, time that could be spent actually watching another movie. One that sticks out is Scott Frank and Lindsay Doran on Dead Again, where Frank mentions that in the movie's early drafts, Emma Thompson's present-day character was a ten-year-old girl, so the romance between her and Branagh's character would have been kind of sick. Frank and Doran have some good laughs over this, because, really, what was he thinking?Johnathan Glazer's reincarnation-themed movie, Birth, raises the same question in the audience, but it's no laughing matter. This ponderous movie offers up Cameron Bright as Sean, a ten-year-old boy born at about the time when the husband of Anna (Nicole Kidman), also named Sean, died. Just as she's announcing her engagement to someone else, young Sean shows up, claims to be the reincarnation of her dead husband, and throws her life into chaos.
"Charmless and stupid."
Or he would, if this movie were capable of chaos. It opens with an extended shot as seemingly long and boring as the highway sequence in Tartakovsky's Solaris. It then spends most of its runtime in the cold, genteel upper classes of New York City, where the characters seldom raise a fuss or even a voice, all formal, stylish black clothing against white snow, with much of the action taking place in the beautiful, tony townhouse owned by Anna's mother Eleanor (Lauren Bacall).
The idea of Anna and Bright connecting romantically should have made me feel queasy, but it didn't, and not because I'm particularly open-minded. It's just almost impossible to feel anything for these characters. Sean, in particular, is a charmless little bastard, displaying neither the innocence of childhood nor the wisdom of adulthood, just a uniform grumpiness that, if it actually reminds Anna of her dead husband, leads the audience to believe that she may be lucky to be widowed. Not that Anna's any particular prize; she's pretty but insubstantial. What does she like, dislike, think, dream, or even just do at her job? Dunno. What about her first marriage was so magical that a ten-year-old boy claiming to be her dead husband can threaten to derail her engagement? Couldn't say. Her relationship with her mother and sister, or even her fiancé? A mystery. The closest thing I could find to individuality was a sibilance in her speech, maybe meant to make her seem a little immature. That's a reach, though.
Even if you're willing to grant the movie's central premise, there never seems to be any logic to the characters' behavior. There's no chemistry between Kidman and Bright, and the way Anna's family and friends investigate Sean's claims just seems inept, while their reaction is muted: No surprise, awe, or metaphysical curiosity when he does something that suggests he is Anna's husband reincarnated, and no suspicion or relief when he misses a step. These characters are never more than actors with a script to follow. Roughly a dozen times in the movie, I found myself thinking that I wasn't sure what an actual human being would do in a certain situation, but certain it wouldn't be that.
This makes it hard to judge the movie's performances: Are they examples of bad acting, because they didn't sell me on what the characters were doing, or decent turns because they did create individual characters, even if their actions made no sense? All I'm sure of is that Nicole Kidman is making some really strange career choices, though having three movies that are different kinds of spectacular failure in one year at least shows that she's not in a rut.Birth is easily the worst of the three, though - where Dogville was ugly and artificial, and The Stepford Wives merely stupid, Birth manages artificial and stupid while also being dull. And there's no worse sin for a movie than to be boring.
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originally posted: 11/12/04 00:42:08