The sophomore jinx hits Jonathan Glazer’s “Birth” hard. The director’s first movie, “Sexy Beast,” was a raucous, breathless gangster flick propelled by a positively riveting performance from Ben Kingsley as a surly, brutal thug. But here Glazer aims at something different, going for a more quietly unsettling, moody tale with supernatural overtones told through long, deliberate sequences that seem almost Kubrickian in their slow, static quality. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t moments of dark humor to be found here, but unless you want to consider the whole picture a tongue-in-cheek sendup of the genre (a viewpoint for which, I suppose, a case could actually be made), they’re relatively rare. “Birth” does succeed in keeping you off balance, and in spite of its almost funereal pace it isn’t exactly dull. But ultimately it comes across like an ambitious effort that’s also a catastrophic failure.
The premise has actually been used in movies quite often in the past–the one about the spouse who shows up unexpectedly just as his supposed widow(er) has married or is about to marry again. It’s a device that’s been employed mostly to farcical effect in pictures as varied as “My Favorite Wife” (where Irene Dunne returned in the flesh to Cary Grant, who’d already wed Gail Patrick) and “Blithe Spirit” (where the wife reappears as a ghost) or “Kiss Me Goodbye” (in which James Caan came back as a spirit just as Sally Field was going to tie the knot with Jeff Bridges), which itself was, of course, based on the far superior “Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands.” The twist here is that the dear departed hubby turns up as a ten-year old boy named Sean (Cameron Bright), presumably in reincarnated form (shades of “The Reincarnation of Peter Proud”). The issue is whether Anna (Nicole Kidman), the young woman who’s been obsessed by her loss for a full decade, can be persuaded that the kid indeed has the soul of the man she loved so deeply, and, if so, what can possibly follow from any May-January relationship that might ensue. (The last half of that equation you might find more than a tad creepy, as in the scene late in the picture where Anna climbs into a tub where the boy is bathing, even though thankfully nothing untoward happens.)
Glazer stages this ultra-pulpy material in a style that treats it as though it were a story of Shakespearean proportions–a tragic tale of a person trapped between prolonged grief and the need to move on with her life; hence the “Eyes Wide Shut” sense of grim deliberation (though without the genius). But Glazer’s real inspiration would seem to be Polanski, since in many aspects of tone and appearance, “Birth” might pass for something titled “Rosemary’s Husband.” It’s set in the same slightly seedy but still tony New York environment, with Central Park making multiple appearances, and as Anna Kidman is made up to look very much like Mia Farrow did in the Polish director’s 1968 version of Ira Levin’s book (the haircut is almost identical), and she’s encouraged by Glazer to act in the similarly dazed, halting fashion, too. The difference is that Polanski kept us on edge with woozy visual tricks and mordantly funny bits of business. Glazer, by contrast, never seems able to shake the draggy rhythm that afflicts the picture from almost the start (excepting the credits sequence, a nicely crafted flashback sequence of Anna’s husband jogging himself literally to death–it’s exquisitely constructed, and backed by some truly intoxicating music by Alexandre Desplat). And while there are moments that can be taken as decidedly humorous, the tone is so haphazard that one can never be certain whether they’re actually intended to be so. (For example, I found the scene in which Anna’s fiancee Joseph, played with considerable finesse by Danny Huston, goes on a rampage at a chamber music soiree as a result of his irritation with young Sean to be very funny, but I’m not at all convinced it was designed as such.) And when the ending rolls around, you’re likely to feel that it performs the trick of being both wildly implausible and telegraphed too far in advance.
It seems that the cast wasn’t exactly sure how to play things, either. Kidman successfully captures Anna’s rather benumbed, emotionally emaciated character reasonably well, but never manages to make her the sympathetic figure the plot demands (as Farrow, a much less adept actress, did with Rosemary); it’s one of her most unexceptional performances. Bright is as undemonstrative and restrained as he was in “Godsend,” and no more interesting this time around. The talented Huston manages to give a subdued sinister quality to Joseph, but Lauren Bacall just saunters around looking an almost petrified simulacrum of her former self as Anna’s snooty mother, and Alison Elliot and Arliss Howard seem straightjacketed by the parts of Anna’s sister and brother-in-law. As for Anne Heche and Peter Stormare, who show up early in the action all distraught to Anna’s engagement party, we’re kept in the dark far too long about their relationship to the main characters, and when it’s finally revealed, it seems a plot contrivance that wasn’t worth the wait. The one member of the supporting cast who brings some real vigor to the proceedings is Ted Levine, who has a strong scene toward the start as young Sean’s father, but he abruptly disappears after that, replaced by the much less energetic Cara Seymour as his wife. Zoe Caldwell as a few nice moments as a housekeeper with a strongly protective streak.
“Birth” has been carefully put together. One can sense that it looks exactly the way Glazer wanted it to–a testimony not only to the design team headed by Kevin Thompson and Jonathan Arkin, but to the cinematography of Harris Savides, who manages some entrancing steadicam shots (like that credit sequence), even if the hand-held ones aren’t equally attractive. One of the most impressive parts of the picture is Desplat’s score, which, from the opening jog onward, does the unexpected in ways that seem absolutely right.
But although the picture succeeds in getting under your skin, you’re likely to find the sensation more irritating that satisfyingly unnerving.