More controversial in conceit than execution, Jonathan Glazer's successor to Sexy Beast is a compelling metaphysical thriller that plays with notions of reincarnation, grief and enduring love. The central premise of a woman's relationship with a 10-year-old boy will probably get the Daily Mail's back up. Yet these potentially problematic scenes - which include a bathtime shared between the naked Kidman and Bright, and another in which they kiss are handled sensitively.
In fact, Glazer proves himself to be a mature, talented filmmaker, his stylistic choices serving the story rather than acting against it (something of a surprise given his background in commercials). So, Sexy Beast's vivid verbiage and look-at-me visual ooomph is abandoned in favour of long, lingering takes, little chat and a brooding classical score. The style is reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick, while the creepy, unsettling mood recalls Rosemary's Baby - clearly acknowledged through Kidman's close-cropped Mia Farrow hairdo.
Not that there's anything else remotely second-hand about the performance. It's an exemplary exploration of love and loss - the fragile, still-grieving widow slowly facing up to the idea that the child really could be her dead husband reborn. During a classical concert, the camera pushes close on her face for more than a minute, as Anna's inner turmoil bubbles to the surface. It's the standout scene in a nuanced, emotional, risk-taking turn that proves far more impressive than Kidman's Oscar-winning theatrics in The Hours. Bright too is an odd, intense presence, and both Lauren Bacall - spiky and amusing as Anna's mother - and Huston offer solid support.
The spell Glazer works so hard to cast does evaporate before the end, with the resolution (rumoured to be one of several filmed) too convenient to satisfy. But it can't dispel the disquieting power of this impressive picture.
Bold, moving, eerie and complex, Birth won't be to everyone's taste, but the performances and direction are impeccable.
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