Mark Kermode - Baby, come back

An eerie drama of life beyond death is marred by its storyline. By Mark Kermode

Birth (15)

As any accomplished horror film-maker will tell you, the greatest challenge in building a tale of the uncanny is not the conjuring of credible ghosts, but the mustering of believable people. Only if we have faith in the reactions of those who inhabit the land of the living can we start to entertain the possibility of visitations from beyond the grave. Think of Julie Christie stumbling stupefied out of a Venetian bathroom after being told that her lost child, Christine, is still with her in Nic Roeg's haunting Don't Look Now, or Marsha Mason staring in awed amazement as a stranger recognises his reincarnated daughter in her own offspring in Robert Wise's underrated Audrey Rose. In both these examples, the audience are suckered into accepting the unimaginable because we make a powerful association with the bewilderment of a down-to-earth protagonist in whose responses we have invested a degree of trust.

Such a moment occurs in Birth, in which Nicole Kidman (sporting a haircut that evokes Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby) plays a widow visited by a ten-year-old child who claims to be her still-mourned husband. After an edgy encounter in which the neurotic Anna tells the boy Sean to stop playing cruel, childish games, the camera follows Kidman to an opera house, where it settles upon her troubled face for what seems like an eternity. As the orchestra booms ominously in the background, the actress's elfin features (mirroring those of her young tormentor) run the full gamut of traumatised emotions, from barely suppressed terror, through claustrophobic anxiety, to heartbreaking acceptance - all without so much as the flutter of an eyelid or the twitching of a cheekbone. It is an effective scene, gripping with intimate understatement and engrossingly executed, a performance well worthy of praise. Yet the chilling spell of this central sequence is elsewhere broken by a narrative laced with the kind of mundane implausibility that often undermines such moments of ethereal magic.

Boasting screenplay credits that include Bunuel's long-time collaborator Jean-Claude Carriere, Birth is a frustrating mishmash of high artistic intentions and occasionally low dramatic achievement. The director, Jonathan Glazer, proved himself a master visual stylist in the unusually intelligent British thriller Sexy Beast, and his command of the cinematic medium is equally well showcased here. With the cinematographer Harris Savides, who lent such an eerie, dreamy edge to Gus Van Sant's Columbine-massacre drama, Elephant, Glazer evokes a privileged worldly paradise into which a hint of supernatural chaos is subversively poured. Crucially, despite the numerous opportunities for showy hokum, Glazer adopts an air of Polanski-esque agnosticism, constantly reminding us that it is Anna's grief, rather than Sean's reincarnation, which is at the heart of this modern fairy tale. In the scenes where Anna talks to (and even shares a bath with) her under-age charge, in the manner of an intimate adult rekindling a lost love, we are constantly encouraged to see her madness, not his "miracle", as the driving narrative force. It is to Glazer's credit that such scenes do not descend into ridiculousness, flirting as they do with the suggestion of paedophilia (it is left to Anna's sister to scream, "What you're doing is illegal!") and occasionally causing our toes to curl in excruciating awkwardness.

What is less convincing is the manner of Sean's acceptance by an extendedly wealthy family that would surely have thrown the abrasive little chancer out on his ear the minute he showed up making trouble. Reprising his "creepy dead kid" shtick from the awful horror romp Godsend, Cameron Bright cuts an imposingly disturbing figure, one part scallywag to two parts child of the damned - a clear descendant of John Wyndham's Midwich Cuckoos. So it is all the more surprising that, after sneaking into Anna's ritzy Manhattan apartment and driving her to madness with his supernatural taunts, Sean is not despatched into the hands of the social services, but invited to spend the night. While our heroine's obsessive derangement may be convincing, the way in which those around her (Anna's conniving relatives, the boy's own family) agree to tolerate her relationship with the child seems frankly insane. Surely, Anna's overbearing mother (Lauren Bacall, who greets the arrival of a new grandson with a laconic "Maybe that's Sean . . .") would have dialled 911 or called for the men in white suits? Indeed, when Anna's displaced fiance, Joseph (Danny Huston), finally grabs his pint-sized competitor and gives him a much-deserved spanking, we can only wonder why no one else has taken such decisive action sooner.

In the end, for all its affecting atmospherics, Birth never solves its more earthly storytelling problems: convincing the audience of its spiritual credentials, but leaving them to make an insurmountable leap of faith in respect of its cold narrative inconsistencies.