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  Directed by
    None Listed
  Starring
  Specs
  • Widescreen 2.35:1
  • 16:9 Enhanced
  • Dual Layer (RSDL 79.28)
  Languages
  • English: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  Subtitles
    English - Hearing Impaired
  Extras
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Cast/crew biographies
  • Featurette - 6 minutes
  • Music video
  • Dolby Digital trailer - "Train"

Birthday Girl

Film Four/Roadshow Entertainment . R4 . COLOR . 89 mins . M15+ . PAL

  Feature
Contract

When one hears the words “English romantic comedy” in connection with a movie, it’s hard to avoid immediately thinking of scripts loaded with dry wit, quirky but endearingly folksy British supporting characters, and either Hugh Grant or Colin Firth. Which, of course, is a completely unfair stereotype spawned by endless re-runs of Notting Hill on television. But in reality, British cinema has seemed to be going through a flat spot in recent years, and when confronted with the cover of Birthday Girl - which manages to mention the words “romantic comedy” and “caper” within milliseconds of the start of the back-cover blurb - you could be forgiven for thinking you were in for yet another too-clever-by-half couple-on-the-run flick. And how wrong you would be.

Only the second feature film for writer-director Jez Butterworth (who we’d never heard of before this film arrived), Birthday Girl is described by its creator as a “sex comedy”, which it isn’t. It’s described by its marketers as a “romantic comedy”, which it isn’t either. It does, admittedly, offer romance, sex and comedy, but the core of the film is much more interesting than any of that - what happens when two people who can’t understand a word of each other’s language have to get to know each other?

“Workhorse” London bank teller John (Ben Chaplin) is brilliant at his job, but lonely in his personal life. He decides, while browsing the Internet, to buy himself a mail-order bride from Russia; he places his order, and a while later goes to pick her up at the airport. The girl that turns up is Nadia (Nicole Kidman), and he soon realises something’s not quite right. Unlike the girl he corresponded with before she left Russia, Nadia can’t speak English and smokes like a chimney. This could be a problem, John realises, but calls to the mail-order-bride company go unreturned, and when Nadia happily proceeds to realise his every sexual fantasy, he decides the relationship might be worth a little more time. But then, on Nadia’s birthday, a pair of loud, vodka-swilling friends from Russia arrive, and life for poor John gets weird, somewhat violent and a teensy bit illegal.

Partially shot (but not set) in Australia, and produced by the UK’s sadly now-defunct Film Four, Birthday Girl is the kind of British romantic comedy that might come out the other end if, say, the Coen Brothers were put in charge of Notting Hill. Jez Butterworth’s screenplay (written with his brother Tom) is enormous fun and, believe it or not, completely convincing - no small achievement for a comedically-minded out-there story where big slabs of the dialogue are in Russian! The characterisations here are unforced but fascinating, and both Kidman and Chaplin are perfect for their roles, with Kidman incredibly convincing as a Russian - she’s always been good at accents, but here she speaks dozens of lines of Russian dialogue as though it was a second language, her tone and mannerisms transforming her into, well, someone who’s not Nicole Kidman. There’s been a very solid character actor emerging from Planet Kidman in recent years, and this role is one of the highlights.

The supporting cast is strong, too - particularly Frenchmen Vincent Cassel and Mathieu Kassovitz (the star and the director of Les Rivières pourpres, reunited) as mysterious Russians Alexei and Yuri. And if some of the comedic moments here seem decidedly left-of-centre in their execution, there’s a good reason why; all three of the performing cast of the brilliant BBC series The League of Gentlemen can be found on the screen here, with Mark Gatiss and Reece Shearsmith’s hotel porters one of the funniest moments in the film.

And yes, there are plenty of genuinely funny moments, but this really isn’t a flat-out comedy - it’s more thoughtful and insular than that, and also has a dark undercurrent throughout that’s in stark contrast to the light, almost breezy nature of some of the scenes. But it’s not a “black comedy” either - it’s got too much of a warm heart for that. Ultimately, if you’re after non-stop fuzziness, go grab that copy of Bridget Jones’ Diary off the shelf and knock yourself out. But if you’d prefer a highly original take on the genre with a dose of the weird, a shot of the unexpected and the most violent slap-in-the-face contest you’ll see on film all year (!), Birthday Girl makes for a refreshing and unpredictable change.

  Video
Contract

Is Roadshow. Is good.

Oh, alright, you want more from us than that. But if Roadshow don’t stop delivering pristine, state-of-the-art DVD transfers to their customers then they’ll end up putting this video section out of business. The anamorphically-enhanced transfer offered here is presented at the film’s theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1, correctly matted from the Super 35 negative. The cinematographer on the film is the brilliant Oliver Stapleton, who invariably comes up with intensely colourful, vibrant widescreen images; he does exactly that here, and his lively photography is a real asset to the film. The only place in the entire movie where there’s anything vaguely worth complaining about is an early night time indoor scene, where shadow detail is almost non-existent; black levels are fine throughout, though, and we can only presume that the burst of darkness was intentional.

The movie is stored at a decently high bitrate on a dual-layered disc, with the layer change coming very late in the film; extremely well placed, it caused our Sony player a pause for a few seconds the first time around, but was negotiated smoothly thereafter.

The numerous subtitles required during the movie’s Russian-language dialogue are placed inside the ‘scope frame; they’re yellow “SBS style” subtitles that were generated at the video stage but are “burned in” to the image. We’d have preferred to see a subtitle stream used, but unless you happen to speak the language you won’t want to turn them off anyway...! Roadshow’s usual “directional” hearing-impaired English subtitles are available if needed and work seamlessly with the burned-in titles.

  Audio
Contract

A fairly workmanlike 5.1 sound mix serves the film generally well throughout, with one major problem - the centre channel is often way too loud, and exhibits noticeable distortion during some early sequences (those involving narration or direct-to-camera dialogue). It’s not a massive problem, but after getting used to the fairly subtle dialogue balance in Hollywood films (often TOO subtle!) the volume of the dialogue here comes across as a bit of an aural sledgehammer at reference level. The other channels appear to be at a fairly optimum level, which means they’ll be a little quieter than you’d expect if you turn the dialogue down. There’s also some minor distortion in the two surround channels during an aircraft sound effect late in the film.

The LFE channel is modestly used when needed, but never comes vaguely close to being obnoxious; ditto for the surrounds, which do offer some good atmospherics and localised effects.

  Extras
Contract

Only the most basic of extras are supplied here, the same (trailers excepted) as the US disc released a few months earlier.

Behind the Scenes: A six-minute run-of-the-mill promotional featurette that offers the barest of glimpses at the making of the film, with a few interview snippets. Diverting, but hardly memorable. Bring back the raw B-roll footage, we say! 4:3 full frame, with a few snippets of the full-frame video transfer that allow comparison to the widescreen framing being the main attraction.

Music Video - Something Stupid: Green eggs and... HAM! Yes, everyone’s favourite boy-band-star-turned-weirdo Robbie Williams turns on the mega-cheese here, mugging his way through a wonderfully over-the-top (and, needless to say, tongue-in-cheek) music video for his duet with Nicole Kidman from last year’s Swing When You’re Winning album. Quite why this clip is on the disc is a mystery - the song’s not actually used anywhere in the film, and wasn’t recorded for it. But it’s a nice bonus anyway, and a good laugh. 4:3 letterboxed, this looks over-cropped at the sides of the frame, but that may have been a deliberate Arty Music Video Director choice.

Theatrical Trailer: As advertised, in 4:3 full frame. Don’t watch it before you’ve seen the film - it’s spoiler central in there. And if you’re avoiding spoilers, no peeking at the chapter titles either!

Biographies: Short bios and filmographies for the principal cast and the director.

  Overall  
Contract

It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of Smirnoff, but Birthday Girl is a determinedly individual approach to a familiar genre that’s well worth the time. And at 89 minutes, it never comes close to wearing out its welcome.

Roadshow’s DVD comes with a terrific video transfer and good audio spoiled only by a dialogue track that’s twice as loud as everything else. There may not be many extras included, but those who’ve suffered through discs jam-packed with tedious over-analysis will find this film’s front cover tagline apt - “Be careful what you wish for”!


  • LINK: http://www.dvd.net.au/review.cgi?review_id=2238
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      And I quote...
    "The kind of British romantic comedy that might come out the other end if, say, the Coen Brothers were put in charge of Notting Hill."
    - Anthony Horan
      Review Equipment
    • DVD Player:
          Sony DVP-NS300
    • TV:
          Panasonic - The One
    • Receiver:
          Sony STR-DB870
    • Speakers:
          Klipsch Tangent 500
    • Centre Speaker:
          Panasonic
    • Surrounds:
          Jamo
    • Audio Cables:
          Standard Optical
    • Video Cables:
          Monster s-video
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