Birthday Girl

         
             Because she was married to a well-known actor whose career at
     times outstripped hers, Nicole Kidman was often regarded as something
     of a curiosity in the USA. Despite excellent work in films as diverse as
      To Die For and Portrait of the Lady, she rarely got her due as an actress.
     2001 changed all that; she was dumped by the movie star spouse and
     delivered two superb performances (in
Moulin Rouge! and The Others)
     that demonstrated her range and versatility. So it comes as no surprise
     that Kidman is terrific in the title role of
Birthday Girl, a black
     comedy-cum-crime thriller. What perhaps should be noted, though, is
     this is the performance that should have jump-started her career.
     Through the vagaries of filmmaking and studio-determined releases,
       Birthday Girl hit theaters after the actress' other triumphs but it was the
     first of the trio to be filmed, so in effect, it is the kick-off of her campaign
     to gain recognition for her acting abilities.

             In the film, Kidman plays Nadia, a Russian mail-order bride who arrives
     in the life of John Buckingham (Ben Chaplin), a somewhat introverted bank
     clerk. Buckingham is the sort who gets by, he's not one to make waves but
     underneath his calm exterior roils the soul of a more adventurous sort. When
     he meets Nadia at the airport, he is disenchanted to learn that she speaks
     and understands little English. Determined to send her back, John is
     frustrated in his attempts as he cannot reach a living person at the
     matchmaking firm. Instead, he and Nadia begin to grow closer, partly
     because she uncovers his hidden stash of pornography and submits to
     his bondage fantasies. Their idyllic world is disrupted when her cousin
     (Matthieu Kassovitz) and his friend Alexei (Vincent Cassel) arrive in time
     to help celebrate Nadia's birthday. When John demands that they leave,
     Alexei takes Nadia hostage and demands that John steal money from
     the bank. To reveal any more of the plot (although the film's trailer and
     TV commercials did) isn't fair to the viewer.

             Normally, Ben Chaplin is called upon to use his dashing good looks
     as either a hero (
Feast of July) or bounder (Washington Square), but here
     he is cast against type as the milquetoast bank clerk and he seems to be
     relishing the chance to play such a bumbling character. There are many
     layers to John and Chaplin manages to suggest several simultaneously.
     Matthieu Kassovitz and Vincent Cassel have worked together many times
     in French films and they have a terrific rapport. Both sport believable
     Russian accents and both project the requisite air of menace underneath
     their surface joviality. The real star of the film, though, is Kidman. Totally
     believable as a down-trodden Russian woman (replete with a perfect
     accent and language skills that are on par with Meryl Streep's), she
     dominates the film. The actress deftly handles the character's negative
     qualities without condescension or comment and her willingness to play
     those scenes in a brutally honest, direct manner, demonstrate her
     formidable talents.

             For the most part, Jez Butterworth's direction is crisp and on target.
     The main problem with
Birthday Girl is that it feels somewhat underdeveloped.
     While there are plot twists that can keep the audience guessing, the final
     scenes are fairly predictable and border on the cliche.
Birthday Girl is kept
     afloat by its quartet of actors, but the script (by Butterworth and his brother
     Tom) strands the film at the level of a B-movie.

                                    Rating:                   B
                                    MPAA rating:           R
                                    Running time:         93 mins.
© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.