“That through which one passes in and out without seeing its form, that is the Portal of God.”
Chuang Tzu 23
And a new Haley Joel Osment is born. Hollywood’s official go-to kid for supernatural thrillers is now a young Canadian actor by the name of Cameron Bright. The eleven year old could be seen in Nick Hamm’s Godsend. Had anyone purchased a ticket that is. Almost nobody did though due to horrendous word of mouth and scathing reviews so the first gander most moviegoers are going to get at Bright will be in Jonathan (Sexy Beast) Glazer’s eerie new cinematic Rorschach Test.
Birth opens with a black screen and the voice of a professor who is wrapping up a lecture. His name is Sean. He is speaking on the subject of reincarnation. “As a man of science, I just don’t believe in that mumbo jumbo,” he says before adding a qualifier: If a bird were to land on his window sill one day and announce that it was actually an old friend, he supposes he’d have to reconsider. He then excuses himself to go for his daily run.
It is the last day he will do so. He suffers a heart attack and collapses under an overpass in Central Park. At the instant of his death, the film cuts to the birth of a baby in another part of the city. His name is Sean and, ten years later, he walks into the luxurious Manhattan home of the lecturer’s widow as she is celebrating her engagement with family and friends. “I want to talk to Anna,” he announces, “in the kitchen, alone.”
Nicole Kidman gives a meticulously calibrated performance as a woman of sophistication and intelligence confronted with a preposterous assertion she slowly but surely comes to embrace. The child informs her that he is Sean, her Sean and that he doesn’t want her to marry the man (Danny Huston) who has recently proposed to her. Naturally, her instinct is to treat the incident as a cruel hoax. She kicks him out but he returns soon afterward. She contacts his parents but they are as baffled as she is. “You know what he said to me?” the boy’s mother confides to Kidman. “He said he’s not my son anymore.”
Anna is surrounded by an extended family which includes her mother (Lauren Bacall), sister (Alison Elliot), brother-in-law (Arliss Howard) and a longtime friend (Anne Heche). They are not about to let anyone hurt or take advantage of her and they don’t appear to have a new age bone in their bodies. At his invitation, Howard pays a visit to the kid’s home and tape records a lengthy interrogation. There seems to be nothing the boy doesn’t know about the life Anna and her late husband led. When he plays the tape back to Anna and the rest, they are dumbfounded and not just a little creeped out.
The story’s metaphysical premise is what gives Glazer’s latest its hook. We’re all suckers for a miracle or cosmic sign. What gives the picture its solid footing more than anything else is Bright’s uncannily convincing portrayal of a boy in whom the soul of a man has suddenly awakened. Sitting in a bathtub with him, Kidman asks what he’s looking at. When he answers “my wife,” you believe him.
In the age of Mary Kay Latourneau, a tale of romance-even a supernatural one-involving a thirty five year old woman and a ten year old boy is a tricky proposition. Audience members have walked out in response to the bathtub scene despite the fact that it’s entirely chaste. Additionally, a great many critics have misinterpreted a subplot which has to do with Heche and a stash of old love letters believing incorrectly, I feel, that Glazer means to suggest they explain the boy’s unexplainable knowledge. It would be a shame to misread the film in this way. It makes a cheap trick out of something exquisite, mysterious and open to a host of interpretations.
Glazer scripted Birth with the French author Jean-Claude Carriere, who collaborated with the filmmaker Luis Bunuel and has written two books with the Dalai Lama. This is a guy who knows a little something on the subject of reincarnation and his influence, I have to believe, is responsible in part for the movie transcending other Hollywood productions in the genre. Directed with a keen eye and sure hand, it has more in common with unsettling atmospheric experiments like Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now than it does with back-from-the-dead tearjerkers like Ghost.
Hundreds of millions of human beings the world over, let’s not forget, accept the concept of rebirth as matter of factly as Christians accept the notion of heavenly afterlife. For me, the film worked well enough. I bought the prospect of a boy in whom a window into a past life inexplicably opened. A fine cast, understated treatment and tantalizing premise make for a movie well worth seeing even if you don’t come away believing.