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From Russia with love 

Kidman provides Birthday Girl's saving grace

Nicole Kidman is apparently the woman of the hour. She's riding high from back-to-back hits, having shone in The Others and survived Moulin Rouge unscathed. Recently she received a Golden Globe and was named 2001's "Entertainer of the Year" by such venerable voices as E! and Entertainment Weekly. She's an all-but-certain Academy Award nominee for Best Actress, and the likely winner.

But the current adulation over Kidman may be more for her coming off a bad year than a good one. Like Hillary Clinton's election to senator from New York, Kidman is no doubt benefiting from sympathy for a bad marriage, having undergone a messy divorce from Tom Cruise this year. Her honors can seem like gestures of public support as much as signs of purely artistic appreciation.

Kidman can be expected to have the pick of Hollywood's A-list scripts for the near future, so it'll be a long time before she makes another low-budget, throwaway film like Jez Butterworth's Birthday Girl. In fact, she's the sole saving grace to the inconsequential comedy-thriller about a meek Englishman and a Russian mail-order bride.

When you have an English protagonist named John Buckingham (Ben Chaplin), you know not to expect a grittily realistic portrayal of the U.K. John's a mousy bank teller bored with his job -- and no wonder, because at the office they seem to spend the better part of each week doing trust exercises. In the opening scene John stammers about himself to the audience, and we gradually learn that he's recorded a webcam message for an Internet service called "From Russia With Love." Birthday Girl's only grounded in reality when it shows the grainy, doleful messages of Russian would-be brides.

Soon John's at the airport picking up his new "fiancee," Nadia (Kidman), only to quickly learn that contrary to his understanding, she speaks no English. Bringing her into his ant-infested suburban home, John proves a gentlemen, giving Nadia her own room and plenty of space, though she readily enters his bed.

Despite the awkwardness of the situation, the two gradually establish a detente sexually and socially. The film's title comes when Nadia uses an English-Russian dictionary to announce that it's her birthday, and that night two boisterous Russians show up at John's door. John grudgingly puts up scruffy Alexei (Mathieu Kassovitz) and Yuri (Vincent Cassel) as uninvited guests, and with Alexei translating he and Nadia can converse for the first time. But Alexei and Yuri have a hidden agenda, and soon John finds himself forced to break the law and go on the lam.

Chaplin makes the most of a challenging task, trying to give a realistic but "cute" performance of a role who's rather creepy on paper: Not only does John seek a mail-order bride, he has a penchant for bondage, leaving Nadia with light rope burns on her wrist. Chaplin gives John signs of social maladjustment, like a subtle tendency to breathe through his mouth and to freeze up, deer-in-headlights style, when nervous.

A character in Birthday Girl suggests that men fall more quickly for women who don't speak the same language, and Kidman herself makes Nadia a vivid presence. With shadowy eye makeup and provocative, midriff-baring outfits, Kidman makes Nadia earthy and impulsive as well as watchful and vulnerable. Later in the film Nadia gets a greater command of English and speaks with something of a Boris-and-Natasha accent, but she seems to speak Russian rapidly and with confidence.

Kidman's Nadia comes across as a real person in a film with little interest in reality. Birthday Girl has a potentially rich subject with plenty of room for exploring clashing cultures and the mail-order bride industry. But apart from a funny moment when John returns from work to find a skinned rabbit hanging on his porch, the script by Jez and Tom Butterworth delves into none of the social aspects.

Instead, the film turns into a crime comedy with two squabbling lovers on the run and a cigarette lighter shaped like a gun proving a recurring plot point. Cassell, who played a villainous French aristocrat in Brotherhood of the Wolf, gives an edgy, brutal performance here, and Kassovitz finds some laughs in Alexei's fondness for the musical Cats. But Birthday Girl's caper qualities prove unexciting and underplotted, and time and again you feel that John would be far better off simply going to the authorities.

The film ends with a two-shot of Chaplin and Kidman, reminiscent of the final scene of Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross in The Graduate. Birthday Girl suffers from the comparison, which only emphasizes how superficial a portrayal the film offers of a potentially interesting and complex relationship. By the end, Birthday Girl only feels like a favor Nicole Kidman did for a friend before moving on to bigger things.

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