Ten years ago Sean, the husband of young wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), died while jogging in the park. Now, Anna is planning to remarry after much coaxing from her fiancé Joseph (Danny Huston), and they are holding a party in Anna's large apartment to announce the engagement. Downstairs in the lobby, two of their friends, Clara (Anne Heche) and her husband Clifford (Peter Stormare) have arrived, but Clara suddenly seems reluctant to go up to deliver their gift to Anna. She tells Clifford to go up alone while she finds a ribbon for the giftwrapping, but actually goes out to the park and buries the package under a tree...
Written by Jean-Claude Carriere, Milo Addica and the director Jonathan Glazer, Birth is a strange, eerie and dreamlike film that leaves a chill, and not simply because it is almost entirely set during wintertime. What makes it strange is the claim voiced by the ten-year-old son (Cameron Bright) of one of Anna's downstairs neighbours; what he says is that he is in actually Sean, that is, the reincarnation of the dead husband. There's no lying on a couch and being hypnotised into past life regression here, nobody claims to have been a sixteenth century milkmaid or King Nebuchadnezzar, Sean (as the boy is coincidentally called) really believes he is Anna's deceased spouse. Yet what has brought him to this revelation?
You don't find out until the end, but meanwhile there's the matter of Sean convincing Anna that he is who he says he is. At first everyone is sceptical, including Anna's family (Lauren Bacall waspishly plays her mother) and insist that Sean is upsetting Anna and that he stay away. Anna and Joseph take the child down to see his parents after he has shown up in Anna's home unannounced, but Sean refuses to never see her again. Just as Anna is leaving she catches sight of the boy collapsing to the ground, which, conveniently for the plot, persuades her that there is more to his story than a simple fantasy, and how does he know so much about her anyway?
Sean's knowledge of Anna's life, and her husband's life, is convincing enough for Anna to invite the boy to stay with her and this leads to some deliberately uncomfortable to watch sequences. As Anna grows to believe him, they share a bath and a tender kiss (although not while in the bath, I hasten to add), and a creepy romance develops between them. While it's patently absurd that the boy could ever satisfy a grown woman as a partner, the film never betrays a hint that its premise is ridiculous: everything is slowly and deliberately told, verging on the subdued so that the occasional outbursts of emotion, like when the frustrated Joseph gives Sean a thrashing, are startling. However, we have never been familiar with the original Sean, so have nothing to compare with the sombre personality of the new Sean.
The explanation, when it eventually arrives, makes you wonder how anyone could have taken the idea seriously. It's not an examination of reincarnation, but instead a meditation on grief and the inability of Anna to accept her husband's death, so any detour into the paranormal looks inappropriate. You may find yourself becoming as frustrated as Joseph at the blank-faced little boy (we never even see him smile until the very end) and the credulous Anna (Kidman is quietly nervy throughout). The whole plot hinges on whether she is still scarred by the loss of her husband, but the contrivances of the narrative are difficult to accept. With everyone restrained for much of the time, Birth needs a character give Anna a shake - her mother comes the closest - and realise how she's damaged, but as it stands it's like a cruel ploy on the behalf of the scriptwriters to prolong her mourning. Music by Alexandre Desplat.
Respected British director of music videos (notably for Radiohead) and advertising (notably for Guinness) who made his feature film debut with gangster movie Sexy Beast. He followed it with controversial reincarnation drama Birth and then ten years later finally got to adapt the sci-fi novel Under the Skin his way in a strange, muted work that divided audiences.