"Birth" might be more accurately called "Rebirth." Lit up by an incandescent Nicole Kidman performance, this adventurous film, daring and frustrating by turns, uses cinematic skill to raise provocative questions about love, belief, memory and reincarnation. As a demonstration of the power as well as the limitations of exceptional filmmaking, it's as unsettling and unusual as anything you're likely to see.
The directorial skill belongs to Jonathan Glazer, who had the idea for "Birth" before he made the Ben Kingsley-starring "Sexy Beast," his knockout feature debut. Working with two screenwriters, the veteran Jean-Claude Carriere (who's collaborated with everyone from Luis Bunuel to the Dalai Lama) and Milo Addica of "Monster's Ball," Glazer elaborated on the notion of a woman (Kidman) confronted by a 10-year-old boy who convincingly insists he's the reincarnation of her dead husband.
Though the narrative thrust of "Birth" deals with whether this boy's claims can be believed or not, its subtext is if anything more fascinating. How would we react if the fantasy of rebirth turned into something like a nightmare, if the person we loved came back in a form different from the one he or she left in. In a battle between the pull of the past and the reality of the present, how all-conquering would love manage to be?
It's a tribute to Glazer's exceptional filmmaking gifts that he turns this wildly implausible notion into something we are impelled to take seriously. If "Birth" is not a wire-to-wire success, the skill and intensity with which it's done make it more involving than some more conventionally successful efforts. It's so good at what it does, it finally paints itself into a corner other films don't have the skill to get anywhere near.
One of the reasons for "Birth's" indelibility is Kidman's success as a widow named Anna, whom we first meet 10 years after her husband's death. With the film's emotional weight riding on her performance, and her hair cut Jean Seberg-short to accentuate the play of events on her face, the actress is so ferociously caught up in the drama that we are forced to believe in it as well. Kidman has made a point of using her stardom to embrace daring projects, and "Birth" shows the benefits of that stance for both her and us.
Before we get to Anna, we get to watch her husband, Sean, jogging through Manhattan's snowy Central Park on the way to his demise. It's a bravura tracking shot engineered by master cinematographer Harris Savides (Gus Van Sant's "Elephant"), and it demonstrates from the get-go what an impeccable eye and true visual flair Glazer and his team are going to bring to bear on the material. Glazer also wonderfully layers in music (by composer Alexandre Desplat as well as Richard Wagner) throughout the film, using it to underline emotion in unexpected ways.
A decade after Sean's demise, Anna is about to be married to Joseph (Danny Huston), a suitor who fits in well with her wealthy Upper East Side clan headed by mother Eleanor (Lauren Bacall). A swank engagement party is unfolding, one that seems to discomfort her late husband Sean's old friends Clara and Clifford (Anne Heche and Peter Stormare) as much as it cheers Anna's sister and her husband (Alison Elliot and Arliss Howard).
Into this room walks another, 10-year-old Sean. We've glimpsed him in the lobby of Anna's building, and now he's in her apartment, insisting, "It's me, Sean, you're my wife" and saying she should under no circumstances marry Joseph.
Naturally, the adults are prone to laugh this off, but, as beautifully played by the unblinkingly somber Cameron Bright, this 10-year-old with an adult's gravitas and an uncanny knowledge of the other Sean's life is impossible to laugh off.
Gradually, implacably, Joseph and Anna find their lives affected by this insistent figure. Huston, badly miscast in John Sayles' recent "Silver City," comes back with a vengeance as Anna's increasingly shaken fiance, projecting a combination of oily uncertainty and dismayed rectitude that perfectly captures a complex character.
What the intelligently spooky "Birth" does best is disturb us, not just with scenes like Anna and the young Sean sharing a tub, but also by making us consider possibilities we'd rather not. If the film ends up making debatable plot choices that dilute its effect, it's a tribute to how much we've come to care that we find them unpalatable. Both on screen and off, it's better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.
MPAA rating: R for sexuality
Times guidelines: Adult subject matter, adult-child bathtub scene, scene of child being beaten.
Cameron Bright... Young Sean
New Line Cinema presents in association with Fine Line Features a Lou Yi/Academy production. Director Jonathan Glazer. Producers Jean-Louis Piel, Nick Morris, Lizie Gower. Executive producers Kerry Orent, Mark Ordesky, Xavier Marchand. Screenplay Jean-Claude Carriere, Milo Addica, Jonathan Glazer. Cinematographer Harris Savides. Editors Sam Sneade, Claus Wehlisch. Costumes John Dunn. Music Alexandre Desplat. Production design Kevin Thompson. Art director Jonathan Arkin. Set decorator Ford Wheeler. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
In general release.