Ten years after the death of her husband Sean, Anna (Nicole Kidman) is confronted by a 10-year-old Sean (Cameron Bright), who claims he is her dead husband, and he even takes her to the spot in Central Park, New York, where Sean collapsed during a winter run. The young boy has chosen the party to celebrate Anna's engagement to Joseph (Danny Huston) to make himself known, crashing the swank party in a ritzy apartment block. Anna's family, including the discomfited Joseph and her mother (Lauren Bacall) are outraged and incredulous. At first amused and then annoyed but finally accepting, Anna herself finds the great love of her life swamping her emotions and wanting to believe. But a secret from Sean's past emerges to muddy the already strange waters.

1 Jan 2009 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 22 Mar 2017 - 9:44 AM
It is a striking, fabulously weird and superbly made movie about love, sex and death.

Last week saw the release of Sydney Pollack's political thriller The Interpreter starring Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman. This week Birth hits cinemas, another film in which she stars. They couldn't be any more different than the proverbial chalk and cheese. Birth is British director Jonathan Glazer's second feature. He emerged from music video and ad-making infamy in 2000 with a blistering debut, Sexy Beast, starring Ray Winstone and Ben Kingsley. Birth is no less dazzling but quite a different film set in New York's affluent Manhattan society.

Kidman plays Anna, a wealthy but subdued society widow who is about to announce her engagement to Joseph (Danny Huston). At the event a boy arrives claiming that he is the reincarnation of Anna's dead husband, Sean. (And as we learn he has the evidence to prove it). Understandably, Joseph is bewildered and infuriated while Anna's life descends into chaos and uncertainty. Clearly she's not over the death of her late husband, and this bizarre apparition presents a potential second chance to get things right.

Birth arrives with controversy. It made world headlines after premiering at last year's Venice Film Festival where it was received with both scorn and acclaim, mainly due to the taboo relationship at the centre of the story. (And a scene where the boy and the woman share a bath together). As one critic wrote, it walks a fine line between good and bad taste. But don't all the best movies? Certainly Birth creates plenty of tension with its ambiguity about the child's identity. Could he really be Anna's husband in child form? This is the delicious conceit at the heart of the game in this film. But Birth could hardly be called exploitative especially next to half of the films we see out of Hollywood (Tony Scott's Man On Fire had the most questionable relationship between child actor Dakota Fanning and adult Denzel Washington on screen, and no-one raised a peep over that little number. It was like they were married.) If anything, Birth addresses Western culture's neurotic attachment to sexualising youth by its very restraint. And the bath scene in question is more about a mother-child relationship, not that of lovers. It's a totally disarming scene filled with sadness.

Director and co-writer Glazer approached making Birth as a kind of modern fairytale. Many are sure to see it simply as an exercise in bad taste or even moral bankruptcy. But that is too short sighted. It is a striking, fabulously weird and superbly made movie about life's big three: love, sex and death. What it does possess is a perverse sense of humour, making it hard not to see as a dark comedy. And a distinct other-wordly aesthetic. No wonder Glazer has been compared with Stanley Kubrick. The late director's Lolita was a similarly-themed film that caused consternation and outrage back in 1962.

Nicole Kidman really delivers in Birth. Her speciality as an actress is in female suffering and she excels here, serving up powerful, silent emotion akin to Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby, another film to which Birth owes a debt. Forget fairytale, this is a modern day nightmare.