Jonathan Glazer's striking metaphysical mystery is intensely compelling, conjuring a mood between European high-arthouse and the unsettling psychological horror of "Rosemary's Baby." Commercial path of the Fine Line project lies firmly in the upper register of the specialty market, but Kidman's performance could expand its prospects.

Worlds away from the tightly coiled violence, time-shuffling structure and stylish visuals of his debut “Sexy Beast,” director Jonathan Glazer’s “Birth” unfolds with a church-like solemnity only marginally less chilly and emotionally austere than the last Nicole Kidman-Lauren Bacall pairing, “Dogville.” But while it veers heavily toward pretentiousness, this striking metaphysical mystery is intensely compelling, conjuring a mood between European high-arthouse and the unsettling psychological horror of “Rosemary’s Baby.” Commercial path of the Fine Line project lies firmly in the upper register of the specialty market, but Kidman’s haunted performance could expand its prospects.

Like “Sexy Beast,” this second feature from British musicvideo and commercials ace Glazer lingered through a protracted post-production period with two editors before coming together in its final form. While the director’s chosen screenwriting teammates of veteran French Luis Bunuel collaborator Jean-Claude Carriere and American “Monster’s Ball” scripter Milo Addica provide an odd mix of sensibilities, they also make “Birth” a brooding, original drama that commands attention.

A jogger runs through snow-covered Central Park in New York City before he collapses and dies under a pedestrian overpass. At the same time, a baby is born.

Ten years later, the jogger’s young widow Anna (Kidman) is preparing to remarry, looking to her confident, cultured fiance Joseph (Danny Huston) to help her shed the deadening weight of prolonged grief. During Anna and Joseph’s engagement party in her family’s Upper East Side apartment, an intense 10-year-old boy (Cameron Bright) hovers in the lobby. The same boy returns uninvited during a birthday dinner for Anna’s mother Eleanor (Bacall). He claims to be Anna’s dead husband Sean and warns her not to remarry.

Anna’s angry dismissal of the boy’s claim does nothing to dissuade him. A regular presence at the building, where his father tutors clients, Sean proves equally impervious to Joseph’s warnings or to the dismay of his own confused parents (Ted Levine, Cara Seymour).

Gradually, Sean’s conviction and the unwavering certainty of his love for Anna creep under the emotionally fragile woman’s skin. Joseph’s sorely tested patience leads to a stunning explosion of violence that prompts Anna to push him away, seemingly cementing her bond with the strange boy.

While never fully addressing the notion of reincarnation, Glazer and his co-scripters ably tease the audience with expectations of an abstract explanation, at the same time digging for more earthbound answers. The boy’s interrogation by Anna’s brother-in-law (Arliss Howard) reveals an intimate knowledge of the late Sean’s life. But the intruder’s encounters with Clara (Anne Heche), wife of the dead man’s best friend Clifford (Peter Stormare), provide more concrete clues.

The puzzle comes together in an elegant, unhurried style, and while the pieces fail to assemble with the precision some audiences might demand, the coolly surreal mood that cloaks the action manages to camouflage any plot holes.

Sporting a closely cropped, boyish hairstyle that recalls Mia Farrow’s signature look and heightens the echoes of “Rosemary’s Baby,” Kidman’s emotionally contained performance makes her seem more unguarded and less poised than her usual roles. With much of her dialogue delivered barely above a whisper, the actress quietly communicates the sense of a woman who has never fully healed and whose need to re-experience the idealized love of her past prompts her to push aside rational thought.

The camera‘s unblinking record of the play of emotions across Anna’s face during a symphony performance feels mannered but is nonetheless audacious and oddly affecting. And the much-talked about scene in which Bright steps naked into a bathtub with Kidman seems designed not to shock but to crank up the disturbing intensity of the relationship.

Young Canadian actor Bright’s confronting gaze and premature gravitas make him a highly effective fit for the role. Huston brings an authoritative, patrician air to Joseph, while Bacall swiftly conveys Eleanor’s dryly brittle, steely no-nonsense nature and Heche makes a strong impression in her brief scenes as sharp-edged, slightly scary Clara.

While not as distinctive as his work with Gus Van Sant, cinematographer Harris Savides envelops the film in an atmospheric pallor of grainy, desaturated greenish and yellowish hues, with slow, stealthy camera movement.

Unlike so many films in which Montreal or Toronto stand in for New York, “Birth” benefits considerably from its location work in Central Park and its pristine Eastside surrounds, creating a kind of dark fairy-tale setting that feels hermetically sealed and somewhat removed from contemporary reality. Ranging from a sustained electronic hum to delicate harps to thundering, full-bodied orchestrations, Alexandre Desplat’s rich score accentuates the film’s troubling mood.

Pic world-premiered in competition at the Venice film fest, where a clarifying voiceover of a letter from the young Sean to Anna — not in place at earlier press screenings — was added to the closing scenes.

Birth

Production

A New Line Cinema release in association with Fine Line Features of an Academy production. Produced by Jean-Louis Piel, Nick Morris, Lizie Gower. Executive producers, Kerry Orent, Mark Ordesky, Xavier Marchand. Directed by Jonathan Glazer. Screenplay, Jean-Claude Carriere, Milo Addica, Glazer.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Harris Savides; editors, Sam Sneade, Claus Wehlisch; music, Alexandre Desplat; production designer, Kevin Thompson; art director, Jonathan Arkin; set decorator, Ford Wheeler; costume designer, John Dunn; sound (SDDS/Dolby Digital/DTS), Michael Barosky; associate producer, Kate Myers; assistant director, Todd R. Pfeiffer; casting, Avy Kaufman. Reviewed at Disney screening room, New York, Aug. 24, 2004. (In Venice Film Festival -- competing.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 100 MIN.

With

Anna - Nicole Kidman Sean - Cameron Bright Joseph - Danny Huston Eleanor - Lauren Bacall Laura - Alison Elliot Bob - Arliss Howard Clara - Anne Heche Clifford - Peter Stormare Mr. Conte - Ted Levine Mrs. Conte - Cara Seymour Mrs. Hill - Zoe Caldwell Jimmy - Milo Addica

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