Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: James Gray’s upcoming The Immigrant has us thinking about the immigrant experience and films that explore it.
Birthday Girl (2001)
Compared to many of her peers, Nicole Kidman has done very few romantic comedies and even fewer when you discount those where she plays a witch (Practical Magic; Bewitched). Even in her softer roles, she tends to favor her serious side, which means that the little-seen Birthday Girl may be the closest we get to a wacky Kidman rom-com. Jez Butterworth’s film isn’t exactly a laugh riot; it’s about a meek English bank teller ordering a Russian bride off the Internet. The movie attempts to sidestep creepiness by painting John (Ben Chaplin) as genuinely lonely: When Nadia (Nicole Kidman) turns up speaking only in Russian, he appears uncomfortable with the potential imbalance of power, even when she initiates a sexual relationship.
The first chunk of the movie is from John’s point of view, but the awkwardness is obvious from both sides, and Kidman, speaking very little, conveys even more than her co-star. Despite the language barrier, John and Nadia somehow settle into a life of knitting, sex, and mismatched fashion styles—only to be interrupted by a visit from her Russian friends (Mathieu Kassovitz and a young-ish but still slimy Vincent Cassel). At first this positions John as the uptight native chafing at the boisterousness of unfamiliar culture—one he was on his way to assimilating. But then the story goes beyond mere culture clash; it follows that a mail-order bride who looks like Nicole Kidman (and acts with Kidman’s steely resolve) must be either a fantasy or some kind of bait-and-switch nightmare.
Birthday Girl reveals possibilities for both scenarios as it twists through a variety of genres, from mismatched rom-com to crime comedy to low-level thriller. The movie’s tones are balanced by Kidman’s multifaceted performance. She and the film hint that Nadia’s life may be guided by the principle that anywhere would be better than her native Russia; meanwhile her Russian buddies take to England like tourists, making small talk about the production of Cats they saw in London. Birthday Girl is an undeniably odd little movie, but its oddness lends it real unpredictability: It’s hard to tell what kind of movie it will ultimately turn into.
Availability: Birthday Girl is available on DVD, obtainable through Netflix, and to rent or purchase through the major digital services.