Nicole Kidman has crafted one of the most interesting, shapeshifting CVs around, hopping from clammy thriller (Dead Calm) to black comedy (To Die For) to garish musical (Moulin Rouge). Now she's done it again, coming straight off her starched-collar, high-profile turn in The Others to crop up in Birthday Girl, a low-key, very British, slightly uneasy comedy about the perils of mail order brides.
Kidman plays Nadia, a Russian minx ordered over the internet by lonely St Albans bank clerk John Buckingham (Ben Chaplin) in a last-ditch attempt to find love. She can't speak English, but they still manage to get it together - though rather too quickly, it turns out, for John's initial suspicions of Nadia's motives are soon justified. The trigger for a catalogue of misfortune is the arrival of her cousins, Yuri (Mathieu Kassovitz) and Alexei (Vincent Cassel), who turn up, vodka at the ready, to celebrate her birthday. John: "Who are you?" Yuri: "We're Russians!"
Starting out as a fumbling, intimately shot, getting-to-know-you rom-com, Birthday Girl takes a darker turn at this point. Until now, the delicate rapport built up by Chaplin and Kidman could form the start of an entirely different film. And, in a way, it's a shame to lose it so quickly.
But it'll be to your considerable advantage if you go with the lurch in tone, for the sheer bluster with which Nadia's relatives enter the movie goes a long way to repaying the loss. The Russians hijack the bewildered Buckingham's home like the Cable Guy's bastard Slavic offspring, with Kassovitz employing his coruscant charisma to marvellously duplicitous ends, and Cassel strong-arming the hapless Englishman out of the picture with exuberant thuggishness. Even more impressive are the Russian accents being bandied about - Kidman you'd perhaps expect to be convincing, but Kassovitz and Cassel also sound authentic to the untrained ear. And while Chaplin, of course, isn't faced with the arduous task of performing tongue gymnastics, he still deserves kudos for managing to make his flustered commuter-belt gimp seem halfway sympathetic.
If you like your movies neatly tucked away into comfortable niches, you won't like this, regardless of the quality of the performances. But if you're happy to swing from straight drama to black comedy to noirish thriller - to show a Kidman-like willingness to experiment with genre - this will reward your effort. And where most recent homegrown 'comedy' offerings have struggled to show even a rudimentary mastery of the basic concept of laughter, let alone originality, writers Tom and Jez Butterworth (the latter brother also directs) sustain a winning freshness throughout. Birthday Girl is a considerable advance on their misshapen 1997 gangster thriller Mojo, and points to maturing homegrown talent.