Funny how many British and Australian imports tend to be quirky little black comedies disguised as crime dramas. "Sexy Beast" is a prime example, and "Birthday Girl," also from 2001, is a member of the same club. A major trait both films have in common is that each is dominated by a single actor: Ben Kingsley in "Sexy Beast" and Nicole Kidman in "Birthday Girl." Without these stars, neither picture would be as worth watching.
In any case, "Birthday Girl" doesn't go quite so far toward being the complete entertainment "Sexy Beast" was, instead leaving us hanging onto an encouraging premise with hardly anywhere to go. For Kidman fans, however, it's still a must, and I wouldn't worry about its having done poorly in theaters because the DVD could rectify that situation.
Ben Chaplin ("The Thin Red Line," "The Truth About Cats and Dogs") is the male lead, playing John Buckingham, a shy, single, thirtyish young fellow who has worked in the same bank for ten years without a promotion. He is passive and dull beyond belief, with no discernable sense of humor. As the film opens, he is looking for love, and having been unsuccessful on his own, decides that the Internet is the place to try next. He basically mail-orders a bride from Russia, something that is apparently not all that uncommon in the real world. What's uncommon in the movie is what he gets for his trouble. Namely, Trouble.
A (literal) bug in John's computer is our first clue that maybe the Web isn't the safest place for forging intimate personal relationships, but his doubts would appear assuaged when he first sees Nadia at the airport. I mean, what guy wouldn't want Nicole Kidman as a blind date? She's gorgeous, sweet, innocent, and kittenish. But then he finds out she's not quite all she wrote him she was. For instance, she smokes like a chimney. Worse, she can't speak a word of English and had someone else write her letters for her! This would only be the beginning of the many surprises Nadia has in store for hapless John.
He's ready to throw her back into the water, trying desperately to contact the Internet agency he used to find her but to no avail. Meanwhile, he notices her in a skimpy outfit, and one thing leads to another, and then she seduces him with her ample sexual charms, and before long they're spending most of their free time in bed, and he's forgotten about the smoking and the language problem and everything else he may have held against her. By now, he's pretty much neglected the fact that maybe she isn't quite the innocent young thing she appeared to be. The movie is deservedly rated R for sex, brief nudity, and some profanity.
By this point in the film, the story line has been humorous, winsome, even touching, but then the plot takes a right-hand turn into entirely different territory, and the tone changes abruptly. On Nadia's birthday, a pair of vaguely sinister-appearing Russians show up at the house, one of them an old friend of Nadia's and the other an acquaintance of his. Yuri and Alexei are played convincingly by the French actors Mathieu Kassovitz and Vincent Cassel. At least Yuri can speak English, so John finally has an interpreter--not that he's needed one, given the nature of most of his and Nadia's activities over the past few days. One cute scene finds John finally able to speak to Nadia through Yuri--only to discover that he has nothing to say!
Anyhow, the two Russian men introduce themselves as singers, entertainers, actors, or something of the sort. It's here that things turn mean. Like when they won't go away. It's also here, unfortunately, that the movie detours into a series of questionable incidents, although we can see every event coming a mile away. Nadia is full of surprises, but I wished as I was watching the film that a few of them didn't follow such obviously predictable paths.
The movie's saving grace is its acting, especially that of Ms. Kidman, who is a delight throughout the picture. Don't worry about the accent, either; she makes a thoroughly credible Russian immigrant, and she makes her switches in the film, though unlikely, almost as convincing. The two French actors work well as Russians, too, and why shouldn't Frenchmen as Russians work since this is already an Australian film set in England. It's called acting. This leaves Chaplin as John, who may at first glance seem to be the blandest, densest clod in the world, but whom we observe emerge from his shell as the story unfolds.
"Birthday Girl" is the kind of little film that comes and goes through one's neighborhood theater without most people giving it a second thought, let alone buying a ticket, but on DVD, it's worth a look. It may not make a lasting impression, but at the same time you may find its first half teasingly, tantalizingly good fun and its second half...well, who knows.
It's odd, but it seems like I can always tell a Miramax/Buena Vista transfer. Either that or Miramax just gives instructions for its cinematographers to shoot all of its pictures in the same way. In any case, the picture quality is slightly glassy, with a thin veneer or dull sheen coating the surface. Colors are rich and deep, but at the expense of the overall image being a bit too dark for absolute realism. Dark areas of the screen are needed to create the illusion of depth, but here the darkness sometimes translates into a small degree of murkiness. The subject outlines are fine, if not perfectly delineated, displayed in an approximately 2.09:1 ratio widescreen presentation, enhanced for 16x9 televisions. Grain and moiré effects are negligible, and any other digital artifacts, if present, were invisible to me.
The sound, Dolby Digital 5.1, is quite robust, starting right out with the main character's speaking voice in the first scene. The sonics are crisp, clean, and well projected, with an excellent front-channel stereo spread that reveals a wealth of subtle detail. But there's not a lot of information fed to the back speakers, so except on a couple of occasions look forward mainly to good foreground sonics. Overall, the audio exemplifies modern, commendable, high-fidelity reproduction.
Buena Vista continue to be stingy with their extras, giving us only a brief, six-minute behind-the-scenes featurette as a major bonus item. In an interview with the director, Jez Butterworth, he tells us he wasn't so interested in making an exposé of Russian mail-order brides but, rather, using the device as an excuse to tell a story about two people who can't communicate with one another. Fair enough, although obviously the movie goes further than that. Beyond the little featurette, there isn't much more except a music video, "Something Stupid," with Robbie Williams and Nicole Kidman, that has only a peripheral connection with the movie. Next, we get a few Sneak Peeks at other BV titles, but, maddeningly, no trailer for "Birthday Girl" itself. Lastly, we're offered a meager fourteen scene selections, English and French spoken languages, Spanish subtitles, and English captions for the hearing impaired.
I don't know. "Birthday Girl" is a film that wants you to like it very much and then deliberately puts you off while you're watching it. It wants to be a stylish crime thriller, but it defeats its purpose by being highly improbable and containing precious few thrills. It wants to be a clever black comedy, but it isn't nearly so funny as it pretends. In the end, the film comes down to being a romantic character study, and heaven help the viewer who doesn't like Nicole Kidman or Ben Chaplin because they're in virtually in every scene. In short, I liked the movie but only as a rental. Yes, it's one of those.