There's a good half-hour at the beginning of “Birthday Girl” when it seems as if the film will be a sweet and original love story between John (Ben Chaplin), a lonely British bank clerk, and Nadia (Nicole Kidman), the Russian mail-order bride he has chosen as his wife. She doesn't speak English, as advertised, and he doesn't know what to do with her. But there's an attraction between the two that promises to make for a fine semi-political romantic comedy, in the vein of “Letter to Brezhnev”. But then the film takes a 360-degree turn and before you can say Quentin Tarantino, John has committed a crime, is on the run, has discovered his would be missus' true motives and gotten involved with a couple of Russian thugs. “Birthday Girl” is, thus, yet another British film whose promising quirkiness is quickly subsumed by American- style violence and action. Why it couldn't have stayed with the touchingly believable couple and their burgeoning love affair is unfathomable because once it shifts gears, it becomes increasingly formulaic, before ending on a falsely upbeat note.
None of this is the fault of the actors. Chaplin, especially, has never been this good, and his sad-sack character is given a few refreshing and creative sexual kinks, which makes John fascinating. Kidman, for her part, is completely authentic as a Russian woman--she reportedly learned the language for the role--and even French actors Mathieu Kassovitz and Vincent Cassel are convincing as the Russian bad guys. So why did the filmmaking Butterworth family go for the obvious chase drama? Whether it's Miramax's pressure to Americanize the script or the filmmaker's wish to score a success at the U.S. box office almost doesn't matter. The final product is like a dozen movies we have seen before. It's forgettable and disposable.
Starring Nicole Kidman, Ben Chaplin and Mathieu Kassovitz. Directed by Jez Butterworth. Written by Tom Butterworth and Jez Butterworth. Produced by Steve Butterworth and Diana Phillips. A Miramax release. Comedy/Drama. English- and Russian-language; subtitled. Rated R for sexuality and language. Running time: 94 min