In BIRTHDAY GIRL, Ben Chaplin plays John Buckingham, a lonely bank teller living in a small English town. At first glance, he is the boy next door, albeit a sulky one without any friends. John has just found what he thinks is the solution to his isolation – a mail order bride from Russia. The woman who steps off the plane, however, is not at all what the bank clerk ordered. Nadia (played by Nicole Kidman) does not speak one word of English, so John decides to ship her back to the mail order agency. Until, however, Nadia discovers that John is a sadomasochist and lust blossoms between them. It turns out that Nadia is actually a prostitute, and John must rob his bank to save her from her Russian pimps.
BIRTHDAY GIRL attempts to portray the creepy Chaplin as an unsung hero, an everyman John who just needs a little excitement to reveal his true calling. John’s destiny, however, is a life of crime, and the love of his life an anonymous bride and a partner in perversion. Though acted and performed well, there’s nothing amusing about this distasteful, perverted little comedy.
(PaPaPa, RoRo, LL, VV, SSS, NN, A, D, M) Strong pagan worldview with a strong message that actions have no consequences, that humankind is ruled by lust & greed, & that a life without crime and/or perversion is boring & lonely; secondary romantic worldview portrays marriage without any commitment or ceremony, with sexual pleasure as the basis for a sustained & “happy-ever-after” relationship; between 15 & 25 obscenities, including sexually explicit titles of pornographic materials; thieves threaten character at knifepoint & with boiling water, main characters engage in violent sex including handcuffs & acts of bondage & character attacks thieves with fake gun & is knocked unconscious; multiple scenes of deviant sexual acts including video & magazine pornography, plus references to prostitution; glimpses of nudity during bedroom scenes, video & on magazine covers & partial nudity during several scenes (including characters in undergarments); alcohol use; smoking; and, unplanned pregnancy & main character is blackmailed & commits inside bank robbery then runs from police, using forged documents to escape.
John Buckingham (Ben Chaplin) is a lonely bank teller living in a small English town. At first glance, he’s the boy next door – albeit a sulky one without any friends. John, however, has just found the solution to his isolation: a mail order bride from Russia. Regrettably, the woman who steps off the plane is not at all what the bank clerk ordered.
Nadia (Nicole Kidman) doesn’t speak a word of English, despite her Internet promises and eloquent letters. Dressed in cheap foreign clothing, she chain-smokes and becomes sick on the way to the house, then retreats to her room in silence, while John places frantic calls to the agency. After two days of silent encounters, including Nadia’s failed attempts to seduce her new “husband,” John heads to work on Monday morning, where he removes his wedding band and lies to his colleagues about the weekend. As far as he’s concerned, Nadia’s going back to Russia, just as soon as the agency returns his calls.
Meanwhile, Nadia riffles through John’s things and discovers a stash of sadomasochistic pornography. She watches a few videos and throws the magazines on the dining room table when John returns. To his surprise, she then leads him to the bed, binding her hands and gesturing for him to join her. Suddenly, their relationship is transformed as they frolic in the garden behind John’s house, feed each other and return to the bedroom for one sexual encounter after another.
When Nadia haltingly conveys to John that it’s her birthday, he bakes a cake. She supplies the friends. Played by Frenchmen Matthieu Kassovitz and Vincent Cassel, “cousins” Yuri and Alexei are Russian caricatures: fun-loving, cigarette-smoking and vodka-swigging. They arrive by surprise and take root on John’s living room floor, until the reluctant host finally asks the men to leave. Only then does John discover the true nature of his guests, and his new “wife.” Forced into robbing his own bank to save Nadia’s life, John learns that everything comes at a price.
Kidman is an excellent actress and pulls off the role of Nadia with plausibility. As with MOULIN ROUGE, Kidman once again plays a prostitute, although this time, she is not specifically labeled as such. Chaplin plays an excellent sex addict, also not labeled as such. He’s withdrawn, unhappy and secretive. Like many that struggle in this area, his character hardly ever smiles, an excellent reminder that lust, however potent, however plentiful, can never satisfy.
Kidman, Kassovitz and Cassel speak Russian (or English with Russian accents) throughout the film, and were very convincing in their roles, a credit to director Jez Butterworth. Then again, my knowledge of the language is limited to “Back in the U.S.S.R.” and “babushka.” Cinematographer Olivier Stapleton offered lovely shots of an English garden and forest, both lush with greenery.
In a misguided effort, brothers Jez (writer/director), Tom (writer) and Stephen Butterworth (producer) attempt to portray the creepy Chaplin as an unsung hero – everyman John who just needs a little excitement to unbury his true calling. For these filmmakers, John’s destiny is a life of crime, and the love of his life an anonymous bride and a partner in perversion. The prophet Jeremiah teaches that God has plans for us – plans for good and not for evil, plans to give us hope and a future (Jer. 29:11).
BIRTHDAY GIRL reduces the marriage ceremony to a mere nuisance, along with the concepts of courtship, dating and engagement, all of which are meant as a gift from God to enjoy. The audience does not meet John’s parents nor any siblings, so their “marriage,” like John’s life, is lived in complete isolation, rather than in the community that God created through family and friends. Moreover, BIRTHDAY GIRL portrays the perversion of the marital sexual union as perfectly acceptable, perpetrating the lie that acting out our sinful desires of the flesh will not only bring joy, but great intimacy. Finally, the movie assumes that “eros” (sexual desire) is equivalent to “agape” (pure, Christlike love), yet another lie. God has so much more that the world to offer us in the way of marriage, if we will only allow Him to enter into that union.
BIRTHDAY GIRL neglects to deal with the reasons why John lives such a secret life, why he “orders” a wife on the Internet and why he is addicted to pornography. What does this say about him? The audience is not even asked to think about this question. In fact, the filmmakers stated clearly that they do not want to “judge” John for his choices, choosing instead to make light of them.
Neither does BIRTHDAY GIRL explore why women choose to offer themselves over the Internet (whether for marriage or other services), nor the consequences of those actions. In fact, no negative consequences are ever portrayed in the movie, even for the “true” villains and their crimes. All the characters are treated superficially, without thought to their feelings, hurts and deepest longings. Only their most sinful desires, greed and lust, are explored, and glorified as the means to happiness.
Crime does not pay, no matter how much it may seem that it does, and sin does not fulfill. In fact, the apostle Paul teaches that we are enslaved to our sins, and that if we give into them, we will ultimately die. James 1: 14-16 says, “Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.”
The titles of John’s porn magazines alone are enough to alienate most people, but the sadomasochism that finally unites John with his “bride” is abhorrent. That the couple live happily ever after is not only unbelievable, but highly fictitious. Love may conquer all, but giving in to our sins does not. It is inexplicable why they would label this film comedy. Dark, definitely, but there’s nothing amusing about perversion.
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