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Birth (2004)

A rare example of a modern, serious film which uses the 'Scooby-Doo ending' and deploys a logical explanation for what has seemed a supernatural set-up. As often, the problem is that the supposedly rational shenanigans necessary to explain away spookiness comes off more unbelievably in film terms than asking audiences (along with the heroine) to accept the reality of reincarnation. The initial idea is somewhat similar to Lisa Tuttle's novel Gabriel: Anna (Nicole Kidman), a young widow, is approached by intense, intent, ten-year-old Sean (Cameron Bright) who claims to be her ten-years-dead husband (also called Sean) come back to life. The boy manages to persuade her that this might be true because he seems to know a great deal about her married life and the backgrounds of their extended family.

There isn't much of the theological debate found in Audrey Rose or Little Buddha and, indeed, it's vague as to whether the dead man has been reincarnated as the living child or possessed him – in the end (spoiler!), it turns out the kid found a stash of buried letters and for some reason chose to make the claim. The prompt for this third-act reversal is a clever bit of writing as Sean just about manages to persuade everyone he's telling the truth and moves into Anna's life when Clara (Anne Heche), the woman who buried the letters, pops up and, in a powerful one-on-one scene with the boy, tells him she knows he's lying because she was the dead man's mistress and he had never really loved Anna the way the kid seems to.

Despite the plot-squirm in the third act, this has a great deal going for it: Kidman delivers a sensational, subtle performance as a woman who doesn't realise how much she wants to believe in a ghost (to the extent of believing in a fantasy husband while the less impressive original model was alive) and director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast) perfectly frames her in long, merciless takes which gives the film a wintery, magical bleakness that only occasionally feels too arty (Kidman wading into the sea in her wedding dress). A too-large supporting cast of family and friends (Lauren Bacall, Alison Elliott, Danny Huston, Arliss Howard, Peter Stormare, Cara Seymour, Ted Levine) tends to get in the way, adding to the sense that this is taking place in an eerily affectless Manhattan like that of Woody Allen's later, not-funny films. Creepy little Bright, in a role similar to is part in the much naffer Godson, makes declarations of love sound threatening and holds up against both Kidman and Heche (powerhouse underplayers) in shivery confrontations.

First published in this form here.

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