(There are really no significant spoilers at all in this review, but if you're the type who likes to see movies with a completely blank slate, then read this after you see Birth. Which you should do immediately. Because it's awesome.)
Why do people still actually believe in God? Thousands of years of human evolution, the progress of scientific research, not to mention the little matter of evidence – somehow, even in the 21st century, a majority of the human race wants to ignore logic and have faith in imaginary creatures. The question posed by Jonathan Glazer in his remarkable second feature Birth
is why we choose to ignore such logic, and then he shows us the destructive consequences of this kind of self-delusion.
Since God is sort of a thorny issue for most people, Glazer and his screenwriting team propose a scenario in which a widow is confronted by a 10 year-old boy claiming to be the reincarnation of her late husband. Ridiculous, of course, but because of the widow’s desperate, pathological desire to ignore reality, skirt responsibility, and believe in the supernatural, she starts to fall for the kid’s claim and her carefully restructured life unravels in the process. What’s amazing (and fairly original) about the story here is that this film is essentially a character study of a man we never meet. Who is Sean, the widow’s dead husband? What kind of person was he? What were his flaws, and who knew about these flaws? Astonishingly, through the widow, the kid, and the surrounding friends and family, we learn a great deal about Sean and find him to be a compelling tragic figure – quite a feat, since we never see his face.
While slowly unpeeling the layers of Sean’s character and exploring a bizarre relationship between a 35 year-old woman and a 10 year-old boy, Glazer’s camera constantly reminds us that cinema itself holds the same power to get humans to suspend disbelief, to ignore evidence in front of us, and to choose to believe in the impossible. He will hold close-ups on a young boy’s fresh face and ask us to consider that he is the ghost of an adult male. He will intentionally withhold a reverse shot so we don’t see the object of a character’s gaze – instead he’ll hold on a reaction shot so we see things we refuse to see in real life (two notable occasions: holding on the family’s reaction to the kid’s first appearance, and holding on Anna’s shower of emotions during the opera). His pace is deliberate, at times recalling Eyes Wide Shut
or The Shining
, and the choice of music is wryly Kubrickian as well.
Nicole Kidman is quite good as Anna, the widow, embodying her wealthy Manhattanite character with the subtle undercurrents of class consciousness that Glazer brings up. When she delivers a hopelessly deluded monologue to her new fiancé, we realize the true extent of her psychological issues, and it’s no surprise that the piece of information which pushes Anna over the line into believing the kid’s claim is his recognition of the woman who told her there wasn’t a Santa Claus. When faced with the absurd reality of depression, death, grief, loss, and betrayal, it’s far more comfortable to believe in faith, reason, hope, and destiny. And the saddest thing about Birth
is Glazer's implication that the tools of denial we use for self-destruction are the same ones we use to fall in love and stay there.