Moviegoers who got their BVDs in a bunch over the brutalities Nicole Kidman endured in Lars von Trier's Dogville won't be mollified by Birth, which subjects the former Mrs. Cruise to yet more intense emotional torture. But those of us who like dear old Nic best when she's on the receiving end of psychic battery will find the film a fine addition to the canon as well as a pleasing refutation of the theory that the only way to contain Kidman's tendency toward scenery-chewing is to put a von Trier in the editing room to cut her off in midsentence. Given limitless room to emote by director Jonathan Glazer, she responds with an exposed but controlled performance that's among her best.
Note a scene in which Kidman's character, Anna a reticent, close-cropped widow of some 10 years' standing attends the opera with her new fiance, Joseph (Danny Huston). It should be a glamorous night out, one befitting their well-to-do, upper-Manhattan lifestyle. But a pall has been cast by something that occurred at the couple's engagement party: A 10-year-old boy (Cameron Bright of Godsend) barged in and declared himself the reincarnation of Anna's deceased husband, Sean. Back at the opera, Anna is a jumble of conflicting emotions; the camera holds on her anguished visage for a seeming eternity, catching every maddening distraction of a thought as it darts across her face. Not since a similarly prolonged portrait shot of Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has expert internal work been captured so effectively on the screen.
The scene is emblematic of the tastefully somber mood Glazer establishes in his sophomore feature, proving that the success of his Sexy Beast relied as much on directorial restraint as it did on runaway boulders and hearing Ben Kingsley call Ray Winstone a cunt. Though the movie's plot which has Anna, Joseph and a passel of their loved ones trying to decide if the boy is indeed Sean redux, or just a pint-sized crank leans toward the supernatural, Glazer and co-writers Milo Addica and Jean-Claude Carrière let events transpire with an unforced naturalism that's even more eerie. Even before Sean II shows up to chill their blood, Anna and her crew exist in an ice world of genteel stillness, their comings and goings underscored by a soundtrack of dignified orchestral refrains.
Yet beneath that placid surface bubble some intense passions. At first repulsed by the boy's desire to "continue" their relationship, Anna gradually becomes obsessed with the possibility that he may indeed be her resurrected love. Or maybe she's just obsessed with him: Grazer and company bravely suggest that their heroine may know deep down that he's merely a kid with a bizarre hang-up, and that she's instead attracted to the same qualities in him that she saw in her hubby. Brace yourself for some troubling two-character scenarios, including a deliciously oogy bathroom confrontation that has already inspired cries of "child pornography" on the Internet. Then again, the same criticism befell Peter Pan. Let the armchair moralists accuse Glazer of misogyny, pedophilia or God knows what else. This is a great picture, unafraid to explore the notion that loving who you do is always an impossible thing to defend.