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‘Birth's’ creepy premise may put off audiences

Kidman's character believes a 10-year-old boy is her dead husband. By Christy Lemire
/ Source: The Associated Press

Jonathan Glazer’s first film was the hip, stylish “Sexy Beast” in 2001, about British gangsters scheming and sunning themselves on Spain’s Costa del Sol.

It was a bold example of a music video director making the transition to the big screen, transferring his ability to marry sight and sound with dazzling results. It also featured a knockout performance from Ben Kingsley, playing a bulldog of a bad guy and rightly earning an Oscar nomination along the way.

His second film is “Birth,” in which Nicole Kidman plays a woman who believes her dead husband is inhabiting a 10-year-old boy’s body, and it seems to have been made by somebody inhabiting Glazer’s body. You would not believe these two movies came from the same person.

Where “Sexy Beast” was bright and buzzing with activity, “Birth” is plodding and pretentious. It would be laughably far-fetched if it weren’t for its young star, Canadian actor Cameron Bright, who’s intense and confident and holds his own amid a starry cast. (A sadly underused Lauren Bacall plays Kidman’s mother, though Glazer and co-writers Jean-Claude Carriere and Milo Addica did give her the sauciest lines; Anne Heche plays the wife of the dead husband’s best friend.)

Looking in Bright’s big, blue eyes, the thought occurs: Could the deceased Sean, who collapsed while jogging in a snow-covered Central Park 10 years ago, really have been reincarnated inside this self-possessed kid from Brooklyn who’s also named Sean?

Then just as quickly comes a second thought: Nah. It is simply too ridiculous — though Kidman’s Anna opens herself to the possibility with implausible speed.

It’s also hard to accept, perhaps, because you won’t want to accept it: The idea is just too creepy, as if Mary Kay LeTourneau were starring in a remake of “Ghost.” You half expect Anna and the kid to mold some pottery together, followed by a math lesson.

One thing they do share is a bathtub, in a scene that has caused a hubbub and drew boos when “Birth” screened at the Venice Film Festival. The moment is chaste, though, and not as repulsive as the idea of Anna and Sean running away together and waiting until the magical day he turns 21, a prospect Anna seriously entertains.

She’d just gotten engaged to Joseph (Danny Huston), who’s doting and cultured and had been pursuing her for years. But Sean, the love of her life who died a decade earlier, clearly still has a hold on her, as evidenced by the shaken way she reacts to seeing his best friend, Clifford (Peter Stormare), and his wife, Clara (Heche), at her engagement party.

Meanwhile, the younger Sean sits and waits in the foyer of Anna’s opulent Upper East Side apartment building. A few days later, at an intimate family gathering for Anna’s mother’s birthday, the boy invites himself in, tells Anna matter-of-factly, “I’m Sean. You’re my wife,” and urges her not to marry Joseph.

Most everyone regards this moonfaced child with skepticism, but Anna succumbs. And the way Joseph eventually reacts to Sean is truly ludicrous: He chases the boy around the apartment and alternates between trying to beat him up as an adult and spank him as a child.

But “Birth” is often strikingly photographed, though some tracking shots, like the one in the opening jogging scene, drag on so long they become comical. The film’s cinematographer, Harris Savides, frequently works with Gus Van Sant, and some of the lengthier shots call to mind the director’s “Elephant” and “Gerry.” Depending on your aesthetic preferences, you’ll either feel impressed by a filmmaker who has enough confidence in himself to stick with a vision, or you’ll find the technique tedious. Both arguments are valid.

In one particularly mesmerizing shot, the camera holds tight in Anna’s face as she sits in the audience of what seems to be the symphony; it’s not clear and it doesn’t really matter, because what counts is that the music is haunting and insistent. Kidman — her hair dyed dark red and shorn to a pixie cut that’s reminiscent of Mia Farrow in “Rosemary’s Baby” — allows the subtlest flickers of emotion to flash across her translucent face.

What could be distracting her — curiosity, nostalgia, guilt? Her performance makes you want to dig deeper in this mystery, but what you’ll find once you get there is ultimately unsatisfying.