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I’m quite in awe of Nicole Kidman. It’s not easy to be as superbly glamorous as her, and yet, take on roles that deeply disturb us, challenging us to peek outside our safe moral frameworks...into that scary amoral vista that exists like peripheral vision. I mean I had to blow my brains out after watching her in Paper Boy. She brings out disgust and sympathy in equal measures. Or what of her exasperating fragility in Stoker? Perhaps her gray roles hit hard because she’s able to process changes in the character in a very nuanced way. She can transition from a smile to a sulk to downright fury without raising her voice. Guess that’s why the directors like to zoom a close up on just that one dialog or scene of her’s. I tell you it’s fascinating to watch her chiselled face crumble, her pupils dilate, as her character literally comes undone. Check this out –
So when Birth was screened late one night on, I vaguely remembered Nicole was in the movie. I was in no mood to watch a drama but curiosity made me stay put...I mean what an ambiguous title that is – BIRTH. It was the opening scene that drew me in actually. It shows a man jogging in a snow-covered Central Park, with the camera following him. It’s a lengthy scene – almost five minutes – enough to make you turn off the TV impatiently, had it been shot the wrong way. But director Jonathan Glaze (searing Sexy Beast and scarring Under the Skin) has turned this scene into poetry in motion. It is one of the most beautiful opening scenes I’ve ever watched - stark, yet stunningly aesthetic, and soaring background score – oh so hypnotic, so hypnotic. Your eyes never move away from the running man’s back and soon, it’s as if you are running behind him, keeping rhythm to his foot falls. The music yanks you up to a different place. As the man enters the dark maw of an underpass, emerges, circles around and re-enters only to collapse in foetal position – you know that Birth won’t be an ordinary movie. How much of thought has gone into shooting that symbolic scene representative of the title?
We come to know that the man who passed away mid-run is Sean, Anna’s (Kidman) husband. The story takes off at a point where Anna has moved on, and is now engaged to Joseph. It is her birthday, and her family (mother, sister, brother-in-law and fiancé) have gathered to celebrate in her ultra-posh Manhattan apartment when a 10-year-old boy walks in. He’s a stranger, and asks to speak to Anna. Amused, she indulges him. The boy says his name is Sean...and he is Sean. Anna’s Sean. He asks her not to marry Joseph.
The boy stalks her, and as the movie progresses, we see the cracks in Anna – she is of course still deeply in love with her deceased husband. We see her disintegrate into a person who has lost all sense of reasonable logic. While there are scenes that are extremely disturbing, you are also moved by Anna’s turmoil. But beneath all this, there is a tight knot of creepiness all through the movie. The child, superbly played by Cameron Bright (X-Men: The Last Stand as the mutant Leech) makes you uncomfortable and you can’t figure out why. Perhaps it is his unsmiling face, intense stares? You never see him run, yell, jump like any other young boy. Perhaps it is his tone when he speaks – an adult tone in a child’s voice. No indecision, no looking for guidance.
But I also think the creepiness is because of the hushed atmosphere of the rich – high ceilings, click clack of high heels, the freezing New York winters. But you know, for me, the discomfort was partly because of a memory association - the high ceilings and Anna’s haircut – it was so very reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby.
I’ll not tell you how the movie ends, of course. But the resolution of the plot is hardly the highlight of the movie. It places before you greater concepts to ponder about. For example, as Anna (and us) begins to believe that little Sean is indeed the reincarnation of her husband – she disassociates the body from the spirit so to speak. In her mind, that Sean’s physical body is 10 years old becomes inconsequential. What matters is The Sean – minus body – whatever you call that identity...that essence she had loved, and continues to love...that’s all that matters. It makes you wonder about the version of ‘love’ we bandy about – so tied down to flesh and blood that will eventually rot away – is it all there is to it? For something as glorious as love...why is it so imprisoning, debilitating?
Kidman effortlessly carries the burden of the movie (without taking away credit from Bright). It’s easily one of her career greats – the amount of acting she can do just with her eyes is astounding. It is scenes like the one below that propels Jonathan Glaze in the genius category – it makes you become one with Anna, and you think as if you are her, as you watch every tension line unravel on her face. While you are it, don't miss Alexandre Desplat's (Argo, The King's Speech, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button...) soul-stirring score.
Birth is certainly not a popular movie – and it will leave many disappointed, perhaps even a tad disgusted. But that’s what all great works of art are supposed to do. Only art and literature have that power to push your boundaries, yank you into zones that are distinctly grey, make you think about things that are too uncomfortable. If civilization has made any spiritual progress at all (in the right direction) – it is because someone somewhere wrote a piece of prose, a piece of poetry, a piece of music; painted a canvas, a cave, a wall, a roof – a piece that made you stop in your tracks and challenged the way you think.
© Sumana Khan - 2014