Review: ‘Birthday Girl’

Setting aside glamour for a turn at pure acting, Nicole Kidman zings up the already zingy script of "Birthday Girl." This smart and funny love story about an uptight English bank teller who orders a Russian mail-order bride over the Internet is a noteworthy follow-up to Brit helmer Jez Butterworth's acclaimed stage bow "Mojo," which he later filmed.

Charmingly setting aside glamour for a turn at pure acting, Nicole Kidman zings up the already zingy script of “Birthday Girl,” most of which she shot in Australia just before “Moulin Rouge.” This smart and funny love story about an uptight English bank teller who orders a Russian mail-order bride over the Internet is a noteworthy follow-up to Brit helmer Jez Butterworth’s acclaimed stage bow “Mojo,” which he later filmed. Pic’s theatrical subtlety of mood and moment may slip past some viewers, and the fact that it’s a comedy with no social message whatsoever (on the contrary, it flaunts a very un-p.c. portrayal of Russians) kept it out of competition at Venice, where Kidman’s ghost story “The Others” competed. Still, given her star power and pic’s all-round enjoyableness, the film should find its way to worldwide auds, though its British setting and mild foreign accents may slow it down Stateside, where Miramax now plans to release it in February.

Ben Chaplin, at the other end of the world from his dramatic perf in “The Thin Red Line,” is John Buckingham, a straight-faced, toe-the-line corporate employee. A snappy credits sequence shows him taping a dead serious profile of himself (“hobbies: running, going out, staying in…”) for a dot-com specializing in placing Eastern beauties with Western beaux. He soon finds himself at the airport waiting anxiously for Nadia (Kidman).They get off to an inauspicious start when John, who specifically sent away for someone to talk to, realizes she knows only one word of English: “yes.” He tries desperately to send her back but no one at “From Russia With Love” is picking up the phone. Meanwhile, Nadia, who is shy but cynically skillful in the art of love, tries to hang on by seconding his perversions, which amount to mild bondage fantasies. That calms him down a bit, and he buys a Russian dictionary as a step forward in their relationship. She points to the word “birthday.”

Her birthday party brings a surprise as two comical Russians, Yuri (played by dynamo French helmer Mathieu Kassovitz, the director of “Hate” and “The Crimson River”) and Alexei (French actor Vincent Cassel) appear on John’s suburban doorstep. Nadia has been expecting them. Suddenly her silence turns into a gush of Russian. At first John is left painfully out of the conversation; then the bilingual Yuri offers to interpret his sentiments to Nadia, to his tongue-tied embarrassment. She, however, tells a very touching story about her father and becomes a great deal more likable to John as well as to viewers.

Yuri, small and funny, and Alexei, big and scary, end up staying that night, and the next. By the time John decides to throw them out, the story’s next twist is at hand: Alexei, wielding a knife and a kettle of boiling water, has taken Nadia hostage in the kitchen. He demands money; a lot of it. John sets about robbing his own bank to save Nadia, but more surprises are in store for him down the line.

Though the interiors were filmed in Australia, the film is convincingly set in Butterworth’s native Hertfordshire, where the rural ambiance offers an appropriately small scale for the Russians’ petty con game. Although it must be admitted that the Russian jokes get a laugh, thanks to Jez and brother Tom Butterworth’s witty, well-timed screenplay, behind the comedy there lies an ugly stereotype about East Europeans, who significantly have all been cast with Western actors. It is a relief to find these characters moving into more human territory before pic’s end.

Sporting long brown hair and raccoon eye makeup, with a humorous Russian accent and body language, Kidman gets a fine chance to put her versatile talent on show as she plays against the diva look of her recent films. French co-stars Kassovitz and Cassel keep up with her pace, throwing themselves maniacally into a Chinese box of performances (for John’s benefit) within their performances. Chaplin is perfectly cast in a comic role that he controls at least as well as John controlled his existence, pre-Nadia. He emerges at pic’s end a new man to cheer for.

Stephen Warbeck’s cool musical beat plays an integral part in moving the action along and subtly switching the mood mid-scene, one of the director’s favorite tricks. Cinematographer Oliver Stapleton’s unobtrusively mobile camera and Christopher Tellefsen’s well-paced editing give scenes a shot of energy, underscoring the many casual visual gags with a light touch.

Birthday Girl

U.K.-U.S.

Production

A Portobello Pictures/Miramax Films/FilmFour/Mirage Enterprises co-production. (International sales: Miramax, New York.) Produced by Eric Abraham, Stephen Butterworth, Diana Phillips. Executive producers, Paul Webster, Julie Goldstein, Colin Leventhal, Sydney Pollack. Directed by Jez Butterworth. Screenplay, Jez and Tom Butterworth.

Crew

Camera (color), Oliver Stapleton; editor, Christopher Tellefsen; music, Stephen Warbeck; production designer, Hugh Luczyc-Wyhowski; costume designer, Phoebe de Gaye. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition), Sept. 5, 2001. Running time: 93 MIN.

With

Nadia - Nicole Kidman John - Ben Chaplin Alexei - Vincent Cassel Yuri - Mathieu Kassovitz Clare - Kate Evans
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