Nicole Kidman’s career can be seen in terms of everything she did before Eyes Wide Shut (1999) and everything she’s done since. Before making Stanley Kubrick’s film, she was known mostly for appearing in lightweight fare like Days of Thunder (1990) and Practical Magic (1998), but working so intensely and for so long with a master filmmaker like Kubrick inspired the Australian actress to up her game and led to a fascinating selection of diverse projects – some great (Dogville), the not-so great (Bewitched) and the underrated (The Golden Compass). As she said in a career retrospective interview, “I’ve never been in a film that was universally lauded so I don’t know that feeling. But I know the feeling of polarizing films, that make people angry and uncomfortable and I’m very comfortable with that.”
An example of one such polarizing film was Birth (2004), a haunting drama directed by Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast). Kidman plays a woman whose husband dies suddenly and may have been reincarnated as a boy ten years later. The film divided critics and under-performed at the box office, but remains her best performance since Eyes Wide Shut and, rather fittingly, very Kubrickian in look and feel. This is evident in the opening scene – an elegant tracking shot of a man running through New York City’s snowbound Central Park. The preceding voiceover belongs to the man who says that he doesn’t believe in reincarnation even if his wife died and came back as a bird because he is a man of science. The irony is that while out jogging he dies and may or may not have been reincarnated as a boy ten years later. The film’s impressive opening tracking shot was conducted by none other than Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown (The Shining) who was hired for one day. It was originally supposed to be done on a wire/rig, but this was not possible when the authorities wouldn’t allow Glazer to remove branches and leaves from a few trees in Central Park.
Anna (Nicole Kidman) still mourns the death of her husband Sean as evident from her introductory scene where she visits her husband’s gravesite, wiping away tears. In a nice touch, she places her hand on his tombstone. Ten years have passed and it is winter again with virtually the same snowy landscape in which he died. She is engaged to Joseph (Danny Huston), who seems like a nice enough man, but she doesn’t seem to be deeply in love with him. I think she likes the idea of being in love with him, but doesn’t actually care for him in that way, not like with Sean. It’s almost as if she thinks that getting engaged to Joseph is what is expected of her, that she’s supposed to move on when enough time has passed and get married to someone else.
Then, a boy (Cameron Bright) claiming to be her deceased husband Sean comes into her life and preys on every doubt and insecurity she has about getting remarried. One night, he interrupts the birthday celebration for Anna’s mother (Lauren Bacall) to tell her not to marry Joseph. The boy says it matter-of-factly and quite unlike a child. Understandably, Anna doesn’t believe him and, initially, doesn’t take it seriously. However, Sean persists, sending Anna a note reiterating his desire for her not to marry Joseph who, naturally wants to know more about the boy. He even speaks to the child’s father (Ted Levine) who tells his son to stay away from Anna, but he refuses. In this scene, Sean doesn’t act like a petulant child, but rather calmly and persistently refuses to stop seeing Anna.
The argument escalates until Sean collapses in an apartment building hallway and this rattles Anna so much that she is unable to enjoy the opera she and Joseph attend afterwards. In an amazing sequence, the camera stays on her face for an extended period of time so that we see a whole range of conflicted emotions play across her delicate features. Kidman conveys this all with her expressive eyes in a moving scene. It is an impressive bit of acting from the actress who wisely underplays the moment instead of going for a showy, tearful approach. According to Glazer, “it’s really the first time in the film that we’re alone with her, and all the prior events are rolled into this one shot as she mulls it over, as we do. We can watch her open these little doors in her mind.” Glazer originally shot this sequence to Richard Wagner’s first prelude to The Ring of the Nibelung cycle (which plays over the closing moments), but he found that the second prelude had “a sense of things moving on and I wanted that.”
Sean maintains that he’s Anna’s husband, even to his parents. Why? He persists, calling and leaving a message for Anna to meet him in the park at the spot where her husband collapsed and died. Later on, he’s even questioned by Anna’s sister’s husband (Arliss Howard) and seems to hold up quite well, knowing intimate details about Anna and Sean’s sex life. For such a young actor, Cameron Bright delivers an impressive performance, resisting the temptation to act like a typical little boy and instead behaving more like someone wise beyond their years, like an adult trapped in a boy’s body. He delivers Sean’s dialogue in a plain, expressionless way that is unnerving because he seems so sure of himself.
Anna admits to Sean’s brother (Peter Stormare) and his wife Clara (Anne Heche) that since he died, life without him hasn’t gotten easier and she hasn’t let go of his memory. She admits that it is a crazy notion to believe that this boy is her dead husband. Anna admits to falling in love with him again via the boy and in this scene Kidman conveys an honesty and vulnerability that is heartbreaking. We are seeing a woman that is beginning to believe that this kid may be her deceased husband. The more time she spends with him, the more doubts she has about her impending marriage to Joseph.
Birth is anchored by an astonishing performance from Nicole Kidman, who delivers on the promise she showed in Eyes Wide Shut with a layered portrayal of a conflicted woman. The emotional range she displays during the film is complex. She avoids attention-grabbing histrionics for something more nuanced, utilizing an array of subtle facial expressions that convey Anna’s internal turmoil. Near the end of the film, Anna lays it all out for Joseph and tells him what she wants – to be happy and have a good life – things that everyone wants. It’s a simple and honest admission, which Kidman delivers with heartfelt sincerity. One has to give the actress credit for eschewing box office clout for more challenging fare in the 2000s (and beyond), appearing in some truly interesting films and turning in some great performances, chief among them Birth.
Danny Huston does an excellent slow burn as Anna’s fiancé. Initially, he doesn’t take the boy seriously, but over the course of the film he gets increasingly frustrated. Huston has a nice scene where Joseph is stood up by Anna (for the boy) and we see him staring out the window of a place that they were supposed to look at with the possibility of living together. As the camera slowly zooms in on him we see a mixture of anger and hurt play over his face as he realizes that Anna is gradually slipping away. His frustration over the whole situation finally comes to a boil at a recital when Sean repeatedly kicks his chair. Joseph finally explodes, physically attacking the boy. The way Huston reacts to this bratty behavior (the first time we’ve seen Sean act like a boy his age) is amusing and a bit scary, but you have to feel for the guy. Joseph has been incredibly patient with Anna up to this point and one could sense that this outburst was coming.
Anne Heche and Peter Stormare are cast wonderfully against type. Both have played their share of eccentric characters with larger than life traits, but in Birth Glazer dials them back so that they deliver earthy, naturalistic performances. Heche, in particular, is a minor revelation, especially during the scene where Clara tests the boy’s knowledge of Sean with some startling admissions of her own.
Birth takes place in the same rarefied Upper East Side upper crust milieu as Eyes Wide Shut. It feels and even looks like these characters could exist in the same world as the one Kubrick created. The protagonists in both films are driven by fear with Bill in Eyes Wide Shut afraid of his wife’s fantasy of committing infidelity, while Anna is afraid of getting remarried. Glazer adopts some of the master’s trademark techniques from that film, including medium compositions, the use of zooms, and tracking shots. Alexandre Desplat’s score for Birth, with its elegant, classical orchestrations, also evokes Eyes Wide Shut, at times. There are Kubrickian elements from other films, like when Joseph attacks the boy, which is reminiscent of a similar scene in Barry Lyndon (1975) and the bit where the hotel desk clerk bounces a ball against the lobby wall, which is a sly reference to the same action in The Shining (1980). With its sublimely framed scenes and Harris Savides’ breathtaking cinematography, Birth is the best Kubrick film the man never made.
Birth began as a one-paragraph idea that director Jonathan Glazer thought up years ago. He gave it to Jean-Claude Carriere (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) who wrote the screenplay with Robin Wright Penn in mind to play Anna. Initially, the script focused more on the boy’s story. Then, Glazer brought in Milo Addica (Monster’s Ball) and they reworked the plot, shifting the focus to Anna. It was at this point that Glazer met Nicole Kidman. She had not received a copy of the script, but came across it and contacted him. The director met her in Los Angeles over lunch and after talking with her for 20 minutes, offered the actress the part of Anna. Addica kept working on the script right through much of principal photography, claiming to have worked on more than 21 drafts.
After Cameron Bright was cast as the boy, Glazer rewrote a lot of the script. At first, he was afraid that the young actor was too closely associated with the “creepy kid” he played in Godsend (2004), but Carriere told him to stay young with the child. Bright was nine-years-old at the time and Glazer “found something very adult in him – and something very vague, which allows Anna to imbue him with what she wants.” He never gave Bright the script to read and instead told him that his character was telling the truth and nobody believed him.” According to Glazer, it was his job to make sure Bright “was convincing.”
In a sequence that caused a bit of controversy at one point Anna shares a bath with the young boy. It is depicted tastefully and all they do is talk, but it shows how much he has gotten under her skin. For the tub scene, if Kidman was naked, Bright could not be in the same room. In the shots where they are in the tub together, they both wore clothing that wasn’t visible on camera. Glazer made sure to give Bright simple directions during this sequence.
Initially, Glazer had trouble articulating the visual style he wanted for Birth until he and cinematographer Harris Savides (Zodiac) did a location scout of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. The dark marble and warm colors of its lobby were exactly the look he wanted. To achieve it, Savides lit interiors from overhead and through muslin while also underexposing the film stock significantly. With this look, Glazer was “trying for a claustrophobic formality” and drew inspiration from Rashomon (1950), The Shining, and Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928).
Having only made one film before, the British gangster film Sexy Beast (2000), Birth was Glazer’s first experience with an American studio, which he said was “like being hit in the back of the head with a bat.” He spent nearly a year editing the film – unusual for one without elaborate special effects. While he was trying to figure out the tone of the film, being careful not to veer into Stephen King territory, his relationship with the studio became strained. They complained that Glazer failed to communicate the film’s progress. He admitted, “I was forever cutting, trying to make it work,” eventually removing 25 minutes from an early version. The director and the studio also clashed over the film’s look and, at one point, Kidman appealed to the studio on Glazer’s behalf for more money to shoot additional scenes. He had finished the film under its original $25 million budget and wanted to use the remainder for additional scenes. While the studio was upset that used Kidman as his proxy, they allowed him the time and money to shoot additional scenes.
Not surprisingly, Birth polarized critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and compared it to Rosemary’s Baby (1968), but felt that Glazer’s film was “less sensational and more ominous, and also more intriguing because instead of going for quick thrills, it explores what might really happen if a 10-year-old turned up and said what Sean says.” In his review for The New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “Without Ms. Kidman’s brilliantly nuanced performance, Birth might feel arch, chilly and a little sadistic, but she gives herself so completely to the role that the film becomes both spellbinding and heartbreaking, a delicate chamber piece with the large, troubled heart of an opera.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan wrote, “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.”
However, Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “C-“ rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “When Kidman slithers into a bathtub with her young ‘husband,’ the scene, in its soft-pedaled way, is the definition of exploitation: It appears to have been cooked up for no other purpose than to conjure creepy child-porn overtones.” In his review for the Washington Post, Michael O’Sullivan wrote, “What I’m not so fond of is the cop-out ultimately taken by the filmmakers, who can’t seem to follow through on their promisingly metaphysical premise … electing instead to eliminate all ambiguity.”
So, how does the boy do it? How does he seem to know all the details about Anna’s husband’s life? He did see Clara bury a box of her brother-in-law’s letters, dug them up and read them. Is he really Anna’s dead husband? Does it matter? Glazer manages to eschew a fantastical explanation in favor of a logical one, but the motivation behind it is still a mystery. Why did the boy do it? What was he hoping to accomplish? It is the one tantalizing question that lingers long after the film ends. Whether Sean is reincarnated or not is beside the point.
Birth is about a woman wracked with self-doubt, still clinging to the past and the memory of a man she obviously loved very much. The final scene is a troubling one as it appears that Anna is unable to find the peace she wants, the happiness she’s looking for, which leaves things tantalizingly ambiguous. Can you truly forget a love like that? Should you? Birth doesn’t give us any easy answers and instead lets us decide for ourselves. This refusal to spoon-feed easy answers is probably what doomed it commercially, but is why it continues to resonate. Glazer’s film is a beautifully shot, deliberately paced mystery that has enough ambiguity so that by the end you're thinking about what you just saw for days afterwards.
Carroll, Larry. “Giving Birth to Controversy.” FilmStew. October 31, 2004.
Clarke, Roger. “Grief Encounter.” Sight and Sound. November 2004.
Horn, John. “Labor Stress Made for a Painful Birth.” Los Angeles Times. October 27, 2004.
Lim, Dennis. “Cinematographer Harris Savides on Trust, Birth, and Invisible Light.” Village Voice. October 26, 2004.
Perez, Rodrigo. “Nicole Kidman Talks Working with Stanley Kubrick, Lars Von Trier & More at The New York Film Festival.” The Playlist. October 5, 2012.
Winter, Jessica. “Birth Control.” Village Voice. October 26, 2004.