"Birth" opens with a scene of surprising emotional magnitude that is driven entirely by its score. Instantly and viscerally evocative, the elaborate orchestration -- which plays over a long tracking shot following an anonymous jogger through Central Park during a beautifully moody snowfall -- is a curious, captivating combination of flute, triangle, French horn and (quite startlingly) tympani that has an uplift and an ominousness at the same time.
This gripping music, by the brilliant Alexandre Desplat ("Girl With a Pearl Earring"), does all the work in this scene until the man -- seemingly young and healthy from behind, which is all we see of him -- pauses suddenly, then collapses under a bridge.
The next scene takes place 10 years later. The jogger's widow, Anna (played by a serious, sophisticated, melancholy, unabashedly pushing-40 yet intriguingly elfin Nicole Kidman) is about to get married again, to Joseph (subtle, pensive Danny Huston), a man who is really more a hopelessly devoted dear friend than he is a lover. Soon after their engagement party, a somber 10-year-old boy (Cameron Bright) sneaks into their grand Park Avenue apartment and refuses to leave. "You're my wife," he tells Kidman. "It's me -- Sean."
Don't panic. "Birth" is anything but a gimmicky Hollywood reincarnation yarn -- and it bears little resemblance to "P.S.," another surprisingly poignant recent drama about deep, unresolved feelings in a possible next-life reunion between lovers (played by Laura Linney and Topher Grace).
"Birth" turns more on powerful unspoken feelings than it does on linear plot. As young Sean (who shares his first name with the man he claims to be in his soul) candidly reveals intimate details of Anna's romance and marriage with her dead husband, his determination is unfazed by her skepticism. "Anna, you're being silly about this," he tells her calmly. And slowly, bit by little bit, Anna's disbelief begins to chip away -- and then collapse completely.
Director Jonathan Glazer ("Sexy Beast") employs long close-ups as troubled thoughts and unsettling emotions creep with minute subtlety across the faces of his characters. In one extraordinary scene, Anna sits nearly motionless in the audience at an opera, and the camera lingers on her porcelain visage for a good two minutes as her mind silently battles her heart over an exchange she's just had with Sean. Kidman barely registers a blink or a twitch, but through her stormy eyes you innately understand Anna's every haunting thought.
It's a heart-stopping moment, and Glazer has more of them in store, notably another lingering shot of Huston (so potently understated in 2002's little-seen "ivans xtc." and this year's "Silver City") as his levelheaded character reaches a point where he can no longer fight off his mounting insecurity. Half of Anna wants to break this child of his delusions, but the other half believes him and cannot let go -- and Joseph sees tragedy looming.
One of the most satisfying aspects of "Birth" is that its characters are all true-to-life adults, never Hollywood caricatures. When Sean is removed from the apartment after declaring himself to Anna, she does not keep his claims secret (for the sake of a scripted surprise later); she immediately discusses it with her whole family (anchored by matriarch Lauren Bacall). In fact, it's their curiosity that gets under her skin at first, not the kid's claims, which she dismisses out of hand.
Less satisfying is the kid himself. Cameron Bright ("Godsend," "The Butterfly Effect") has the whole intense-and-somber thing down pat, which is right for the role, but his downcast Hummel-figurine face lacks expression.
Even though "Birth" stumbles in spots -- at one pivotal point burdening Kidman with a scene that comes across as emotionally dishonest -- the film recovers beautifully in a last act of very revealing moments that are open to interpretation, making this the kind of movie you come away from with your mind whirling with possibilities about what has happened and what it means.
Run time: 100 mins
In Theaters: Friday 5th November 2004
Box Office USA: $5.0M
Distributed by: New Line Cinema
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 39%
Fresh: 56 Rotten: 88
IMDB: 6.0 / 10
Director: Jonathan Glazer