I don’t think I’m ruining anything by saying that Nicole Kidman (“The Others”) stars in “Birthday Girl” as a Russian mail-order bride who turns out to be one part of a 3-person con operation. This also adds to my ongoing theory that movie trailers nowadays are only useful if you don’t want to be surprised by the movie.
Nicole Kidman is Nadia, a Russian whose only English vocabulary is “yes”, but that hardly matters since she’s beautiful and has washboard abs. All of this adds to entice mild-mannered banker John (Ben Chaplin), the nebbish bloke who sent away for her. Unfortunately Nadia’s beauty isn’t quite enough to convince John to let her stay. But after the resourceful woman discovers John’s stack of bondage porn and shows a willingness to make them come true, John starts to come around.
Soon, John and Nadia is one happy couple, even though he pretty much keeps her locked away at the house, and his co-workers don’t even know about her. Trouble arrives in the form of Alexei (Vincent Cassel) and Yuri (Mathieu Kassovitz), two male Russians who claims to be friends of Nadia. They arrive just in time for her birthday, and before the week is over, John has been tricked into stealing from his bank and the Russians, including Nadia, are making plans to leave England with $90,000. And oh yeah, the cops are looking for John, now considered a notorious bank robber.
The best thing about “Birthday Girl”, hands down, is the performance of Nicole Kidman, who steals the show as the deceptively sexy Nadia. Her character is so cunning that whenever she senses worrywart John is having second thoughts about their situation, she immediately attacks him with a sexual encounter. But after her attempts at using conventional sex to turn John around fails, she goes looking for his weak spot. She finally finds them in a pile of bondage tapes and magazines.
Ben Chaplin (“The Touch”) is also convincing as everyman John, who is not written by brothers Tom and Jez Butterworth as a complete idiot. Oh sure, John is a little awkward, and he has hidden perversions that he’d rather no one find out about. But when Alexei and Yuri attempts to steamroll him into letting them stay, John is mentally tough enough to question their identity and to keep on the look out for hints that things might not be on the up and up. Ever careful, John never really loses his temper, but seems forever poised and in control, even when he’s obviously not.
In American moviegoing terms, “Birthday Girl” is closest to an Indie film, with its quirky disposition and conventional (re: plain) direction. The screenplay is very light and lacks emphasis, but that was probably the intention all along. Things in “Birthday Girl” just seem to happen, and not once did I ever get the feeling that events in the film could actually happen in real life. If “Birthday Girl” was a Hollywood movie people would call it “illogical” and “contrived”, but when the Brits do it it’s “quirky” and “personable”.
It deserves mention that because Nadia and her compatriots are Russian, most of their dialogue is in Russian. From where I stand, with my non-Russian ears, star Nicole Kidman seems to have learned her Russian very well. She’s convincing, and so are Frenchmen Cassel and Kassovitz. Cassel (“Dobermann”) works well as the violent Alexei, as do Kassovitz, whose character is addicted to the game GranTurismo.
“Birthday Girl” is a worthwhile experience, and Nicole Kidman looks terrific even bruised, handcuffed, and beaten up. And oh my does her character go through a lot of physical punishment in the film. A lesser actress might have demanded script changes, but Kidman goes for the grungy look with gusto. Then again, even grungy she’s easy on the eyes, so where was the risk?
Jez Butterworth (director) / Jez Butterworth, Tom Butterworth (screenplay)
CAST: Nicole Kidman …. Nadia
Ben Chaplin …. John
Vincent Cassel …. Alexei
Mathieu Kassovitz …. Yuri