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As Kidman comes of age

Nicole Kidman's willingness to stretch artistically despite the risks makes her the best reason to see her latest film, Birthday Girl.

By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 31, 2002

Nicole Kidman's willingness to stretch artistically despite the risks makes her the best reason to see her latest film, Birthday Girl.

Nicole Kidman knows a bit about risky business. She learned it alongside her ex-husband, and not only that it's one of his movie titles. Like that guy, Kidman realizes she has a face that could coast to big paychecks, yet she wants something more.

Kidman took two grand risks last year, and both paid off handsomely. Moulin Rouge has her in line for one of those coronation Oscars like Julia Roberts got; The Others was a tightly wound stretch. She moved from those projects to Birthday Girl, a movie getting wider attention than it should because of her sudden solo popularity.

Birthday Girl is an art-house caper with a People magazine star, an uneven blend of screwball romance and outdated Tarantino riffs lacking enough love and bullets for those comparisons to matter. Director and co-writer Jez Butterworth never quite lets out the reins on his material as in the similar films Something Wild and Reindeer Games. If not for Kidman's erotically charged femme fatale, the movie might slip straight to home video.

Kidman plays Nadia, a Russian mail-order bride arranged for a meek bank teller named John Buckingham (Ben Chaplin) through an Internet site. John is shocked to learn that Nadia can't speak English and is ready to ship her back. But Nadia knows body language, picking up some kinky tricks from John's porn stash to make him change his mind.

Chaplin's blank shyness and Kidman's curious sensuality make Birthday Girl an interesting culture clash for about 30 minutes. Then the birthday arrives, bringing with it a visit from two other vaguely sinister immigrants, Yuri (Vincent Cassel) and Alexei (Mathieu Kassovitz). They're supposed to be just friends, but John senses something more intimate among them.

He doesn't know the half of it. Soon, John has been forced to rob the bank vault, the first of several intrusions into a previously sweet slice of quirk. Nadia, of course, doesn't turn out to be what she seems, and even that doesn't hint at the breadth of her deceptions. Birthday Girl springs surprises that are easy to shrug off, right up to the bittersweet ending.

The only reason to buy a ticket is to see Kidman's performance; it's not extraordinary but it's surely a different direction, taken by an artist who doesn't need to. She isn't afraid to shuck the glamor of Moulin Rouge or the disciplined line readings of The Others. Kidman even handles the Russian language well, from a layperson's view, with most of her dialogue in that tongue and not much of it subtitled. This could be a throwaway role, but Kidman won't settle for that. These days, cruising isn't an option.

Birthday Girl

Grade: C+

Director: Jez Butterworth

Cast: Nicole Kidman, Ben Chaplin, Vincent Cassel, Mathieu Kassovitz

Screenplay: Jez Butterworth, Tom Butterworth

Rating: R; sexual situations, violence, profanity

Running time: 93 min.

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