Nicole Kidman in Birthday Girl.
Let's face it Nicole Kidman's career is so hot right now they could put a dog food commercial starring her in theaters and people would probably go see it. Which probably explains how this small, low budget, British film made it into American theaters. Made prior to her sudden, double Moulin Rouge/The Others, catapult to frontline stardom, it is just now, three years after it was made, being released here in America. And for that we should be thankful. For if Nicole hadn't found this sudden power in Hollywood, we would have missed out on this small, but nicely done, movie.
And small is the watchword of this movie. Unlike many Hollywood blockbusters, this movie was obviously filmed on a low budget and stays away from the big action with which it would have surely been filled had it been made today. Instead it is much more character driven and almost more play like. The action is minimal and limited to a few fights and threats. There are only four real characters apart from the extras, and most of the film, until near the end, takes place in one house.
The story is simple. A lonely bank clerk from a small English town orders a Russian mail order bride. When she arrives, she doesn't seem quite as promised. She doesn't speak English for a start and her sexual appetite leans towards the sado-masochistic. Shortly after she arrives, her male cousin and friend arrive and ask to be put up in the house for a while. Things go from bad to worse after that.
Nicole Kidman gives another bravura performance, managing to convey a range of emotion without speaking for most of the movie. Ben Chaplin does okay as the shy, nebbish bank clerk, but the scenes without Nicole are definitely the less bright for her absence.
A nice change of pace from the typical blockbuster, but might seem a bit tame to American audiences as well as a little predictable. Anglophiles and Kidman fans will be pleased with the effort however.
Ben Chaplin and Nicole Kidman in Birthday Girl.
The Birthday Girl is one of those movies that is so obviously British. As Scott has wrote, if this was American made their would have been a lot more action. The bank clerk would have probably turned into some action hero and we would have had at least one high speed car chase. Luckily we can still find semi-original film making from overseas.
Scott went on about Nicole Kidman's performance and character of Nadia. Whereas she does do a good job I would like to give credit to Ben Chaplin. He plays a bank clerk named Sean whose sexual fantasy is bondage, not the mail order brides, as Scott wrote. He works with another clerk who is shown flirting with him. However, he is shy and a bit nervous about his sexual preference. Instead of pursuing a relationship with some one he knows, he sends out for a wife.
He is prepared to send his non-English speaking, Russian mail order bride back until she discovers his porno stash and willingly volunteers to play the bondage games that his video tapes and magazines depict. They tie each other up as part of their sexual acts. It is at this point that he becomes comfortable with her and he develops feelings for her.
All is not as it seems when her so called Russian friends come to visit quite unexpectedly. They in fact, are criminals who threaten to harm Nadia if Sean doesn't rob his own bank for them. In an interesting scene, Sean, wearing only his underwear, is tied and bound to a toilet by the Russians. The expression on Ben Chaplin's face is that of a broken betrayed man. Only days before he had revealed a private sex fantasy of being tied up to a stranger and now finds himself in a completely belittling, similar situation.
I liked this movie solely for his character. He is insecure yet likable. The symbolism of the ant infestation representing his insecurities and his privacy. Note the scene where he is putting the bug killing powder around his house. The scene where he first eats with Nadia and carefully throws his napkins with ants on it away hoping she does not see them. Of course after she engages in his fantasies he has let down his walls. In the scene where he watches her smash some ants and then smiles at him is strangely enough the point where he discovers that he does have serious feelings for her.
All of this wonderful irony and symbolism really goes to hell in the last half hour. After Nadia's secrets come out, Sean still decides to run off with her. The transformation from shy clerk to criminal on the lam is just too hard to believe. There is the scene where Nadia tells her story to Sean. She slaps him and he slaps her. Remember, that is foreplay for Sean. Whereas she had the upper hand through most of the movie. His return slap was a statement that he was no longer her sub.
This is an interesting film about dominance and submissive roles in relationships. A film that could have gone a little further on most counts. A little more sex and a little more violence. Hey, I'm American. It is what I have come to expect from a film. However, if there was more sex and violence I probably would not have noticed the interesting details.
Vincent Cassel and Nicole Kidman in Birthday Girl.
Birthday Girl starts strong and has a good cast. The plot set-up is intriguing and I wanted to get to know John and Sophia better. Unfortunately those other two Russians show up and the movie becomes more of a comic thriller and a predictable one at that. Who, for example, didn't guess that she actually spoke English?
There is really no character development to speak of and by the end of the movie I still didn't feel like I knew these people. But then I don't think the writers did either. Their entire relationship was based on lies so I didn't buy it that they would suddenly fall in love. Sure the sex was great but how many times did Sophia betray John? Hell he doesn't even find out Sophia is her real name until the end. And I agree completely with Eric that John's transformation from clerk to outlaw lacks believability.
Scott mentioned that this movie sat on a shelf for three years. This is apparent in the scenes at the end at Heathrow Airport. The security they pass through is most definitely pre-9/11. This must have seemed odd to audiences watching it in early 2002 that didn't know it had been filmed back in the more innocent days of the 1990s.
About the best thing I can say about Birthday Girl is that it runs less than 90 minutes. This one is for Nicole Kidman fans only, or for anyone wanting to see her run around in bra and panties for half the movie. As for me, I was bored to distraction by it all and couldn't have cared less about the fate of John and Sophia.
Photos © Copyright Miramax Films (2002)