Cinema Signal:

. "Birthday Girl"

If anyone can't get past Nicole Kidman's stunning beauty to recognize that she's a huge talent they need only watch her last three movies for range and convincing capability. See her can-can dancing as a musical comedy star in "Moulin Rouge," her intense other-worldly mothering in "The Others" and this one, as Nadia, a sensuous mail-order bride from a clutch of Russian grifters. In it, she displays her mastery of the Russian language, her sexual prowess and a range of conflicting emotions that brings unexpected changes to her character's life and destiny.

It starts when straight-laced British bank employee John Buckingham (Ben Chaplin), a lonely single man, goes online with the "From Russia With Love" website to create an introduction video enabling him to sort through a selection of Russian women who want to come to America. John may be a gentle unaggressive soul, but there's nothing wrong with his taste, which we see when Nadia (Kidman) shows up at the airline terminal. But his limits shine through when he sees that she smokes (her tape said she didn't) and that she speaks no English (also counter to his prior understanding). He's on the phone with the travel agency in a tirade wanting to send her back.

Nadia is staying despite John's fixating on minor trivialities, however, and she's doing it any way she can. What she knows is the most effective means is by sex, which she gives him a treatment of when John broaches the subject of her return. Next day, while John is at work at the bank, she explores his house and discovers bondage magazines. Sexual obsessions she understands and has a nice surprise for John when he returns: herself, compliant, willing to be tied to the bedstead. John is beginning to think it's not all a matter of cigarettes and language and, soon, the pair are actually enjoying one another.

Before anything can settle down to domestic bliss, however, she no sooner announces that it's her birthday than two Russian male "pals", Alexei (Vincent Cassel) and Yuri (Mathieu Kassovitz) arrive at John's door to join the celebration. They assure the mistrusting John that they are only friends and offer to translate between the pair so that they can communicate for the first time. John can't think of anything but Nadia relates a story for John that has to do with her first impression of him at the airport. It's a tender, sweet expression of her regard.

The presence of the two Russians, passing themselves off as artists, is dislocating to John and the life he was envisioning with Nadia. He is still trying to make sense of the development when he catches Yuri playing and making contact with Nadia in a way that's a little more than harmless. He asks the Russians to leave, which sets the con into motion. Yuri, the more physically violent of the two men explodes, playing his scam, threatening to kill Nadia if John doesn't come up with bank money. Nadia then exposes her true identity as the third in the swindle, destroying John's growing feeling for her.

Ah... but our little story of romance doesn't end there. John does rob the bank. The Russians do get $90,000 in their mitts. Nadia (aka Sophia) does admit to being pregnant with Yuri's baby. And, believe it, there's lot's more.

The real heros of all this noirish duplicity are Tom and Jez Butterworth, cowriters and director (Jez). They've created a taut character driven script of 93 minutes without a false note and put it together with unerring taste in casting. Ben Chaplin is effortless in portraying the buttoned down bank employee capable of emotional feelings that surprise himself, including the deep mortification of being played for such an over-willing sucker. His self-control and understatement combine with a feeling of hidden and interesting complexity. He's not just a simple, bewidered guy.

One can only guess at why Nicole Kidman, on the rise in the ranks of talent and stardom would take on such a low-budget effort, but doubts disappear when you consider the exquisite taste she has in material. The range of her last three movies, the marvel of her introduction to American audiences in "Dead Calm" has demonstrated the mark of many a great actor, finding movies that are well written and parts that are as diverse as they are challenging. One must not consider her in the context of her personal life. That's why it's called personal. Here, she's the total professional.

She converses in Russian in many (subtitled) scenes, convincing this viewer of her fluency with the difficult language. That she can also convey the proper accent when she speak English goes without saying. And, the subtlety and economy with which she conveys emotions appear to come from a sensitive core. This is an exciting actor to watch in anything, and she's the gem in this little, totally satisfying outing.

The cinematography is expertly executed by the fine Oliver Stapleton ("The Grifters") while strong editing came into play under the expert supervision of Cristopher Tellefsen ("The People vs. Larry Flynt"). Outstanding on the crafts side, too, is the spot-on wardrobe for Nadia, provocative, trashy, alluring, expressive -- to such a degree as to add dimensionality to the character. To this reviewer, this level of observation is far more deserving of oscar consideration than the grand high-budget costumery of a "Harry Potter" or "Charlotte Gray."

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Nicole Kidman as Nadia

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Ben Chaplin as John