Birthday Girl

Birthday Girl (2001)
Buena Vista Home Entertainment
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Ben Chaplin
Extras: Featurette,

"Birthday Girl" was one of four films produced under a five-year joint venture between Miramax and London-based HAL Films before creative differences and personality clashes caused the partnership to break up after two and a half years. It was shelved for a while then released around the time of the 2002 Super Bowl. It came and went. Too bad for Nicole Kidman because she was wonderful in the film.

Co-producer Stephen Butterworth describes the film’s plot as having unexpected twists and turns. "It’s sort of Crying Game-y in that respect, " he told The Sydney Morning Herald. Well, he’s a far "crying game" from his thoughts on "Birthday Girl". "Crying Game" was unpredictable and completely non-linear in structure. "Birthday Girl"… yes, there was a twist here and a turn there but it was somewhat predictable and completely linear in storytelling.

"Birthday Girl" is about a heart-broken banker in England, John Buckingham (Ben Chaplin) who sends away for a Russian, mail order bride, Nadia (Nicole Kidman). Nadia chain smokes, does not speak English but is beautiful and great in bed! On her birthday it is John who gets the biggest surprise party of his life – Nadia’s cousin Alexei (Vincent Cassel) and his friend Yuri (Mathieu Kassovitz) pop in unannounced and make themselves at home. With a non-English speaking Russian fiance, her Russian cousin and his flirting friend, it is obvious John’s life will never be the same again.

The tone of the movie started off light and appealing with tension built around non-English speaking Nadia and an apprehensive, John – who is also scared of his new fiance. I was in anticipation of how the relationship would develop and was very interested in watching that aspect of a relationship-mode movie. Then the tone of the movie changed into a dark, twisted black-comedy. Or was it a thriller/drama?

This is only the second directing job for Jez Butterworth and he was able to get a good performance out of even the minor roles. But I’m not sure what Butterworth, who co-wrote the screenplay with his brother Tom, was trying to achieve as far as tone. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t consistent. Immediately I compared the movie and tonal changes to Jonathan Demme’s film, "Something Wild". Is it possible that the joint venture between Miramax and HAL films was due to the creative difference based on the tone of the movie?

When John immediately felt the relationship wouldn’t work because Nadia didn’t speak English I began to question the ‘realness’ of the film. He wanted to return Nadia to the Internet mail order bride company, ‘Russia with Love’. I felt like he should at least try to make it work. Okay, I admit my thoughts were also just bit more shallow – who cares if she doesn’t speak English! It’s Nicole Kidman! She’s a babe! In the beginning of the movie John does state that looks aren’t important, but c’mon – make due with the beautiful woman and then teach her English! That’s logical. Right?

Dialogue was sparse during the first act of the movie. It clearly showed that Butterworth’s story telling skills were not dependent on expositional dialogue. The conflict between Nadia and John and their discovery of each other was well told without the words. The tension between the two also worked itself out and the movie really began to build around their quirky relationship. I wondered why Kidman took this role but there was range and depth to her character and I was incredibly impressed with her overall performance.

Although you do get a movie that comes full circle as far as the Nadia and John relationship, the plot does seem farfetched and unbelievable at times. Some of the small plots and twists seem forced but didn’t completely distract from the entertainment level of the film. Watch this movie for the strong performances by Kidman and Chaplin. I didn’t hate this movie but I definitely did not love it. I was generally interested in seeing where it would take me and for the most part, it gave me a mediocre ride. If it wasn’t for Nicole Kidman, the movie could have been shelved forever.

Miramax Home Video brings us "Birthday Girl" in a 2.35:1 <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> transfer <$16x9,enhanced for 16x9> televisions on a <$RSDL,dual-layer> disc. I found darker scenes lacking definition and a few times noticed <$pixelation,pixelation> and edge enhancements. This was filmed several years ago, shelved, then released to a limited number of theaters in early 2002, which could be the cause for some noticeable specks and marks – probably from the print – but not at all distracting. Colors are rich and deep and the overall look of the film is a bit murky – which coincides with the wet Australian backdrop where the film was shot. Despite the film’s moderate budget, overseas production, and creative differences between production companies, the picture is decent without major flaws. It is not one of the best transfers from Miramax but it is good.

"Birthday Girl" is presented in <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1 that is robust and clear. The film does not have much use for spectacular sound. In fact, the first twenty or so minutes of the film is presented with minimal dialogue. It offers a very front-speaker audio presentation that reveals subtle detail when needed. Overall, the sound is crisp, clean and dialogue is well projected throughout.

Special features are at a bare bones minimum. Is this a new trend from Miramax? I enjoyed the music video, "Somethin’ Stupid" that features Nicole Kidman and Robbie Williams. If anything, "Somethin’ Stupid" was the biggest delight of the DVD. Behind the scenes featurettes are always fun to watch and a 6-minute "making of" featurette of "Birthday Girl" is offered. To wrap up the Special Features are "Sneak Peek" trailers for "The Others", "In The Bedroom", "Amelie", "Shipping News" and "Gangs of New York".

"Birthday Girl" was a surprise just based on a wonderful performance by Nicole Kidman. The movie wasn’t a complete let down but shouldn’t be watched with a large popcorn bag filled with expectations. The $19.95 DVD price tag might be a bit pricey for this 90-minute feature and unless you are a die-hard Kidman fan, wait for a drop in price before adding it to your DVD library. The relationship development between Kidman and Ben Chaplin was fun to watch but that was the only unpredictable part of the movie before it took a drastic, but not absolutely bad, tonal change.