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BALCONY SEATS

Reversal of Fortune

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I haven't any idea what Jez Butterworth spent to make his current romantic thriller, Birthday Girl, but unless he paid star Nicole Kidman a fortune, he made it on the cheap. And that should be a lesson Hollywood has been all too loath to learn. Devoid of pricey special effects and shot with a limited cast on simple sets, the picture has to rely on that most undervalued of motion picture assets, its screenplay. Create interesting characters, find talented actors to portray them, then put them in a solid story; that's the unapprehended secret of moviemaking. But as a confounding default, Hollywood would rather spend $100 million on glitzy predictability. Go figure. Birthday Girl focuses on the essentials and delivers the entertainment goods. It's not quite a great film, but it's a darn good one.

Written by director Jez Butterworth with his brother Tom, Birthday Girl is the story of John Buckingham (Ben Chaplin), a shy bank clerk from small-town England. For reasons merely asserted and perhaps not entirely convincing, John has given up on being able to find a suitable mate. In that regard he seems not to notice the way his pretty banking colleague Clare (Kate Evans) seems to watch him out of the corner of her eyes and how those eyes light up whenever he speaks to her. But Clare's seeming availability notwithstanding, John has been doing research on the Internet and has found the solution to his loneliness: a mail-order bride. After many online interviews, John chooses a slim and lovely Russian lass named Nadia (Kidman).

When Nadia arrives from Moscow, John pretty quickly learns the disadvantages of Web-based romance as compared to something more traditional -- like dating. Nadia wears a little too much eye makeup and dresses more like a '70s swinger than a would-be new millennial wife. But those aren't fatal flaws. Her chain-smoking is more difficult to tolerate. And then, of course, she doesn't speak a word of English. John was desperately yearning for a companion, and now he's got a housemate he can only communicate with in sign language. To make matters incredibly worse, before John can undo his arrangement with the mail-order agency, Nadia's cousin Yuri (Mathieu Kassovitz) shows up to celebrate her birthday. And as if Yuri isn't bad enough, he's got in tow a rambunctious fellow named Alexei (Vincent Cassel) who possesses all the manners of a startled antelope in a house of glass. These two Russian fellows really just have to go. But when John politely suggests they pack their bags, well, he sort of wishes that maybe he hadn't.

Lots of what leads up to this eviction notice and much of what follows is executed with consummate filmmaking skill. We aren't clear where the film is heading for a long time, and that keeps us nicely off balance. The tension builds like Chinese water torture, what seems inconsequential suddenly becoming provocative. Is Alexei a Russian version of Seinfeld's Kramer? Or is he a sociopath? More important, is Nadia a desperate young woman deserving of our sympathy, a calculating conniver willing to sell herself for the chance of a new life, or something even worse? The Butterworths' script keeps us spinning on that merry-go-round for the first half of the movie, and just when we think we've got Nadia figured out, we start spinning in the opposite direction.

I flat-out loved the power of the romance in this movie. Just when John has concluded he can't possibly cohabit with a woman he can't talk to, she produces a gold wedding band for his finger, and when he tries to take it off, she tries to force it back on as if his wearing of the ring really made them married and really afforded her sanctuary from her past. Absolutely marvelous. Comparable scenes follow. When John tries to avoid consummating their relationship so he can return Nadia like a catalogue-ordered jacket that doesn't fit, she seduces him (as, alas, I suspect Nicole Kidman could seduce most males out here under the age of 90). And then she ups the sexual ante. While he's at work, she finds his stash of dirty magazines and pornographic videos, figures out his fantasies and forthrightly endeavors to make all his dreams come true. Yes, this is sexy. But more important to the picture's success, it's touching. We know that Nadia is pursuing her own objectives as she strives to provide John his most secret pleasures, but we also feel the neediness in her determination to please. She wins us with her vulnerability.

But, of course, Birthday Girl is a world that invokes the song lyrics in Richard Rush's great The Stunt Man: "What good are your dreams, where nothing's what it seems?" Birthday Girl is one good last twist from being in the class of The Stunt Man, but it's a film you definitely want to see.

You want a refund??? John (Ben Chaplin) gets more than he bargained for in his mail-order bride Nadia (Nicole Kidman) in the entertaining romantic thriller Birthday Girl.
  • You want a refund??? John (Ben Chaplin) gets more than he bargained for in his mail-order bride Nadia (Nicole Kidman) in the entertaining romantic thriller Birthday Girl.

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