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The premise is a pure fantasy trope, suitable for the next Kate Hudson/Matthew McConaughey flick: Anna (Nicole Kidman), a New York widow for the last decade, has just decided to marry long-time romantic pursuant Joseph (Danny Huston), when a ten-year old boy (Cameron Bright) appears in the middle of a celebratory family dinner to announce that he is Sean, Anna's husband reincarnated, and he wants her to call off the wedding, and to be with him again. At first he's laughed away, but he quickly evidences knowledge and understanding far beyond what should be possible, threatening Joseph and angering and disturbing Anna's family. If you're not watching closely, you might mistake this as one of those mystical "true love never dies" beyond the grave romances, along the lines of Ghost, but the real theme here seems to be "true love is extraordinarily selfish."
If the boy is lying, what's his angle? What does he hope to gain? But worse, if he isn't lying . . . what joy can he hope to bring to his beloved Anna? What hope can he offer her? How could they have a romantic, physical, adult relationship? It's plain to see that he's bringing her nothing but confusion and pain, that his main effect is to deepen old wounds that have never truly closed. But none of that matters to Sean, as he plows ahead with a preternatural calm and self-possession that seems creepy because it's so adult. He just love her, and that's all that matters. What he should be doing for the sake of the object of his affection doesn't seem to occur to him (or at least not at first).
Meanwhile, why is Anna so quick to believe him? There's no suspense over whether or not she will believe -- we see this happen early on, in a wordless and extraordinary two minute shot of Anna's face (Kidman's performance here is one of her best, and reason enough all by itself to see the movie). But why is she in such a hurry to throw aside her fiance to pursue this unbelievable notion, no matter the cost to those she loved, or to herself, her relationship, even (it's suggested) her sanity? She claims, in one of the key thematic moments, that she had no choice, that anybody else would have reacted as she did. This is clearly untrue, but it doesn't matter to Anna. What matters is that she loved her husband, she wants him back, and she'll grasp at any straw to have what she desires. Her frank interest in the boy is just as disturbing as it's meant to be, and director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast) allows his film to be disturbing, without ever granting Anna the absolution for her actions that would careen the telling into lurid exploitation.
Nor does Joseph deserve our sympathy. He's obviously threatened as his fiance seems willing to throw him over for a fifth grader, but he's too quickly threatened, and jumps too readily to violent anger. It's not easy to compete with a prepubescent, but surely there are more appropriate methods of going about it than those Joseph chooses. From his first appearance, when he announces his engagement to Anna in terms of hunter and prey (indeed, in his self-congratulation seems blind to the fact that he comes off as a stalker), to a late scene when he allows Anna to kiss his hand, love for Joseph -- and for all these people -- is all about ownership . . . about possession (incidentally, this makes me wonder if Kidman's hair, which is such a strong call-back to Mia Farrow's iconic bob in the otherwise thematically unrelated demon-possession classic Rosemary's Baby, isn't one of the most subtle puns ever told). In the final shots, Anna has made her choice, or her cage. Perhaps she didn't have a choice. Or maybe Birth suggesting that she could have chosen neither suitor, and no possession at all. The claustrophobic sets, chilly minimalist score, and dark palette all underscore the constrictive themes.
So, is Sean who he says he is? I hope you enjoy your ambiguity cold. If this movie stumbles, it's in a late-act revelation that either muddies the water further toward this point (as well as whether or not Anna's dead husband truly deserves her undying ardor), or else attempts to answer the question definitively in a way that is completely unsatisfactory. If I was more sure that Glazer's intentions lay to the former, I'd be more inclined to grade this movie higher (and I think repeat viewings definitely could improve the score). As it is, it's a hidden gem that just needed a bit more polishing to be a classic.