Birthday Girl

Birthday Girl (15)

ALMOST 30 minutes passes before Nicole Kidman utters more than one word – ‘Yes’ – in Birthday Girl.

Being that she’s playing Nadia, a beautiful Russian mail-order bride, and that she can’t speak any other words of English when lonely nerd John Buckingham (Ben Chaplin) collects her from the airport, it’s utterly intriguing when she does eventually open her mouth and out comes a babble of unintelligible Russian.

Unintelligible to you, me and Buckingham, of course, but then young John hasn’t much else in his humdrum life to worry about. Stuck in a dead-end job at his local bank, loathed by his manager, largely ignored or the subject of derision by his colleagues and with no private life worth shouting about, John pours himself into teaching his new would-be bride to speak the Queen’s English.

Things take an odd turn when, out of the blue, two of Nadia’s cousins (Mathieu Kassovitz and Vincent Cassel) arrive at John’s house. Before he knows what to do or say, they’ve moved in and he, Nadia and they are enjoying cosy drinks, snacks and picnics in the local woods.

Of course, things are gearing up to go seriously pear-shaped and, when they do, neither John nor we anticipate just how bad they can get.

Kidman’s work over the last three years has shown her to be an extremely versatile actress – witness her performances in Moulin Rouge, The Others, and Eyes Wide Shut – and Birthday Girl is another feather in her cap.

Hardly the type of blockbuster favoured by other Hollywood stars, it instead pours its small budget into hiring a quartet of superb actors, all of whom pile themselves into delivering grade-A performances.

Kidman, an Australian, and Cassel, a Frenchman, speak Russian like natives, while Chaplin embraces the potential restrictions of his grey little man to provide the emotional heart of the film.

Birthday Girl is built on a succession of twists and turns that shift the story away from romantic comedy to thriller to outlandish adventure story and back to romance. Once again Kidman proves herself to be queen of all she surveys, effortlessly essaying the part of a Russian tart while managing to retain the sympathy of the audience.

Her transformation from semi-mute sex object to scheming bitch is achieved with a marked lack of over-emphasis, while Chaplin’s journey from wannabe bridegroom to enlightened cuckold is a joy to witness. This is arguably his best role since The Thin Red Line three years ago.

Cassel and Kassovitz (the latter the Gallic filmmaker responsible for La Haine and The Crimson Rivers) shine as money-grabbing villains, though Cassel’s is the standout performance as the unhinged, knife-wielding Alexei.

Written and directed by brothers Jez and Tom Butterworth, and produced by fellow sibling Stephen Butterworth, Birthday Girl is a family affair that really strikes a chord. It is let down only by the final 20 minutes, and a finale that wraps everything up rather too neatly to be believable.

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