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About A Boy, NY Daily News, October 24th 2004

'Birth' star Nicole Kidman talks about her strangest screen encounter yet

In "Birth," Nicole Kidman plays Anna, a well-heeled Manhattan widow about to be married to the socially appropriate Joseph (Danny Huston). When a 10-year-old boy, Sean (Cameron Bright), turns up at her mother's birthday party, he tells Anna he's her husband (who was also named Sean) and that she shouldn't marry Joseph. Anna angrily ejects him, but the boy won't give up. What's a girl to do? Gradually, Young Sean's sincerity convinces Anna he is speaking the truth. They kiss once and, on another occasion, talk in the bath. These scenes have, inevitably, earned the movie notoriety. It was booed at its Venice Film Festival premiere last month and is proving difficult to market before Friday's release.


Speculation about its content "started way before it had even been screened for anyone," Kidman says. "People were thinking that we were kissing in a bathtub, which we don't. It's strange how a rumor starts. Before you know it, it's everywhere, and then it's very hard to dispel. I don't see the movie as terribly controversial, but that may just be because my view of the world is slightly askew."


Jean-Claude Carrière, who wrote "Birth's" screenplay with its director, Jonathan Glazer, and Milo Addica, says of the Venice reception, "We were absolutely astonished that people saw in what we had done things we'd never thought of. It's unbelievable. To us, [the bath scene] was very pure, very modest, without any dirty allusions. But some people are always looking for what they would like to see, or to do."


Certainly the intimate scenes between Kidman and Bright are nonsexual. Although they appear to touch lips, their shy kiss is fleeting (not "lingering" or "passionate" as some reporters have alleged) and it honors a bond between them - the bond of two unhappy people who believe they shared a past. The bath scene only emphasizes the unbridgeable physical gulf between them.


Audience concerns about the propriety of all this should (but probably won't) be lessened by the idea that Young Sean may not actually exist.


A solemn, sturdy kid from the boroughs, he seems real enough, but Glazer's wintry metaphysical mystery hints he's a projection of Anna's unresolved feelings. In other words - Freud's, to be precise -the boy's sudden arrival in Anna's life represents "the return of the repressed," of yearnings she buried long ago.


Anna's emotional development has been arrested by her husband's death 10 years before. One suspects she was initially blocked by her subservient relationship to her controlling mother (Lauren Bacall), with whom she still lives in an airless upper East Side apartment. No explanation is given for the absence of Anna's father, but you can bet it has scarred her.


So perhaps she conjures Young Sean into being.


"There's the early scene of the mother's birthday where the boy comes out of the darkness with the candlelit cake," muses Kidman, who shows Anna's serenity crumbling as the story unfolds. "So there's a way in which you could interpret it that he's in her imagination and it's the only way she's going to be released. There are no answers in this film, only questions - but I think they get under your skin."


Glazer has deployed what he calls "a dual logic" - reality and fantasy - before, in his 2000 feature debut "Sexy Beast." It's about a retired Cockney robber, Gary (Ray Winstone), who's visited in his idyllic Costa Brava retreat by a snarling gangland gofer (Ben Kingsley) from his past who rekindles Gary's demons as he bullies him to participate in a dangerous heist.


For "Birth," Glazer and his writers "hit upon the principle of the fairy tale very early on," he says. "We tried to create a kingdom - the idea of an anteroom to the afterlife, where everything is still and deathly. It's a world that Anna wants to escape from. But she can't articulate it to her family, which has lived through her marriage and her recovery from her husband's death. The boy comes in as an alternative to the life she's been subjected to since. She creates him somehow, and imbues him with whatever she wants him to be."

'LIKE LIGHTNING'

"When Jonathan brought the idea to me, it was like lightning," says Carrière, who famously collaborated with the Spanish master Luis Buñuel. "I had never heard or thought about such a love story. The more we worked, the more we realized there was a third character, time. Time is there, all the time - especially given the 25-year age difference between the woman and the boy - and we want the audience to think about that on an unconscious level in every scene."


At one point, Anna suggests to Young Sean that they elope and marry when he's 21; she even speculates what he'll look like then. Their love begins to echo, say, the deathless love of Cathy and Heathcliff in "Wuthering Heights." But then a witchy character played by Anne Heche causes a cruel reality check.


Kidman gave a lot of herself to the movie, which contains shots dwelling on Anna thinking - including one sustained take where conflicting emotions play on her face at a classical music concert.


"Jonathan said to me very early, 'I'm just going to capture you,'" Kidman recalls. And I said, 'What do you mean by that? Because Anna's really damaged.' And he said, 'I don't want to talk about it. All I want is you to bring yourself to the set every day,' which is a daunting thing for a director to say to an actress. Far better for him to say, 'I want you to do this, this and this.' But I said okay and just trusted him.'


"He and I had a very unusual relationship," she adds. "We'd talk a lot and then he and Milo would basically rewrite the script at weekends in accordance to me. It was strange, because it was like this woman was being constructed the more they found out about me."


She says she hasn't "let go" of the movie yet, so "when people criticize it, it's a personal criticism, and when people laud it, it's personal praise. I'm very, very attached to it."


Glazer says "Birth" is about a woman "driven mad by love." Kidman say it asks, "What is the power of all-consuming love and does it stay with you for the rest of your life? Do you, or can you, ever really leave it behind?


"It's interesting, because you see a lot of people, on their second or third go-around, saying, 'Oh, well, I'm just going to choose this person because it's going to be easy, secure, and safe ...'"


But instead of choosing whom we love, doesn't love (prompted by our unrecognized needs) choose us?


Kidman mulls this over.


"I think it does," she says. "Fortunately and unfortunately, yeah."


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