Published Dec 01, 2001Birthday Girl is an odd thriller/comedy hybrid it may take you a while to adjust to its mood and rhythms, but that isn't such a bad thing. Ben Chaplin plays John, a geeky, whey-faced bank teller who, feeling the odds are stacked against him when it comes to meeting eligible women, sends away for a Russian mail-order bride. She arrives, a bedraggled, dark-haired beauty named Nadia, and although she doesn't speak a word of English, she's more than willing to wordlessly provide an impromptu hand-job or submit to being tied up. Nicole Kidman plays the cold, but seemingly desperate bride, and she further proves that her acting genius lies primarily in her ability to remain mysterious and opaque (just look at The Others or Eyes Wide Shut), revealing her characters in enticing increments.
The narrative keeps shifting the power relationship between John and Nadia. He basically wants to get rid of her almost immediately (he's grateful for the sex, but creeped out by her automatonic willingness at the same time). Their roles switch in a whiplash-fast moment with the arrival of Nadia's boisterous, leather-jacketed Russian friends (played with charming menace by Vincent Cassel and Mathieu Kassovitz). The three of them open a bottle of vodka and suddenly, Russian is the dominant language in the house (Chaplin blanches and backs up into a corner, overwhelmed by the sudden loss of control).
I think I would have enjoyed the movie more had I not seen the TV ads that shamelessly give away every single plot point in a mere 30 seconds. Still, there's a very original voice at work here. There are lots of laughs in the first half hour or so, but the comedy is intentionally tainted by the seamy anonymity of the relationship and the weird, awkward silences that exist between John and Nadia. Director and co-writer Jez Butterworth keeps the audience slightly off-balance throughout, never resorting to generic "thriller" set pieces, which actually dials up the tension considerably. Like when the Russian thugs have John tied up in their hotel room they should be talking about how they're going to kill him; instead they're having an idle conversation about the innovative production design of the musical Cats.