The plot of the film Birth revolves around a presumed reincarnation. Director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast), who also co-wrote the script, creates a barely credible situation, but he places it so firmly in a particular reality that he carries the viewer along, conceding the premise to see where he is going to take it. The film is exquisite, both visually and aurally, further seducing the viewer to stay with it, even if the story is hard to buy into. It’s never less than interesting.
The opening sequence, seen during the main titles, shows a man on a run through a wintry, snow-covered and deserted Central Park. Accompanied by music of mesmerizing intensity (score by Alexandre Desplat), the scene climaxes with the runner collapsing under a bridge, seen from a distance. Immediately following is a shot of the birth of a baby.
The body of the film takes place ten years later when the widow of the collapsed runner, Anna (Nicole Kidman), becomes engaged to Joseph (Danny Huston), who has been wooing her for three years. His speech at their engagement party is a confession of his dogged persistence in the face of her unwillingness to commit. It’s the first piece of evidence of her continuing and unresolved mourning for her late husband, Sean.
At a later family event, a quiet, reserved, and deadly serious ten year old boy, also a Sean (Michael Desautels), appears and tells Anna that he is Sean, her husband, and that she should not marry Joseph. Thus begins a series of encounters between a persevering young Sean, Anna, and other members of the family. When tested, Sean is found to know a great deal of intimate detail about the late Sean, enough to make Anna, still emotionally needy, believe his claim.
Glazer sets Birth almost entirely in Anna’s affluent upper-East Side New York world. She lives with her mother (Lauren Bacall) in a grand apartment of handsomely understated good taste. Emotions in this family are reigned in, as understated in their expression as is the decor. But Glazer gets under the surface of that cool with long closeups. A scene with Sean in which he refuses to leave Anna be is followed by a scene of Anna and Joseph going to the Metropolitan Opera. As the lush Wagner score of Die Walkure swells on the soundtrack, the camera settles on Anna’s face. Kidman plays her own silent symphony of conflicted and painful feelings seething under the surface.
The story as developed in the screenplay leaves its premise deliberately ambiguous. That young Sean might actually be her husband reincarnated is a profound temptation for a widow who, after a decade, continues to mourn deeply. The reincarnation can be accepted as a "what if?" proposition, posed to explore the relationship of a widow with her beloved late mate, her family, and her fiancee. In that sense, Birth calls to mind Francois Ozon’s film, Under the Sand, a study of a widow’s mourning that delves into her emotions, occasionally using surreal images to convey feelings.
Some viewers may find Glazer’s pacing to be slow and some may be unable to get past the leap of faith required by the premise. This is not a horror story or a thriller. It is an imaginatively conceived meditation on grief and mourning, not entirely persuasive, but a thought-provoking and elegantly made film, nonetheless.