It could be Nicole Kidman's year. That's what I keep reading, anyway. If getting married to Tom Cruise was a good career move ' not that she married him for that reason, mind you ' then getting divorced from him was an even better one. Hollywood wants to console her, perhaps with an Oscar. And it has two roles to choose from, the mother who's so in-the-dark in The Others and the entertainer who has all Paris at her feet in Moulin Rouge. Personally, I preferred her in The Others, where the ghostly pallor of her skin gave off a morbid chill. She was certainly game in Moulin Rouge, a Parisian Charo, but she doesn't sing or dance well enough to deserve an Oscar, not that that will stop the Academy from giving her one. For over 10 years now, we've been waiting for Nicole to become either a big star or a great actress.
What's been stopping her? Hard to say. Critics have pointed to her iciness, which I don't see. Tilda Swinton, who has Nicole's pale skin and red hair, is icy, but Nicole has a farm-fresh sexiness that raises the temperature on her performances. No, she's not icy, but she is rather reserved ' a technically polished actress who seems reluctant to surrender herself completely to a role. She has hidden depths, but until quite recently ' the joint-smoking scene in Eyes Wide Shut, all of The Others ' she hasn't been plumbing them. And that's kept her from connecting with us. So has the Australian accent, which, however charming, puts a whole ocean between her and us. And so has her marriage to Cruise, which kept her consigned to the Mount Olympus of celebrity without the movies to back it up.
Birthday Girl, which Kidman filmed while she was waiting for Cruise to complete Mission: Impossible 2, won't change things. But it contains yet another interesting performance from this rarely-less-than-interesting performer. (Exception: Portrait of a Lady, where she was in over her head.) Here, she's Nadia, an e-mail-order bride from Russia who winds up on the doorstep of a suburban London bank employee named John (Ben Chaplin). With his starched white shirts and porno collection, John is one of those Milquetoasts who long for Something Wild. And Nadia, who can't speak a word of English, spells trouble, albeit in Russian. John tries to send her back at first, but when Nadia reaches for his crotch she touches something deep inside this horny nebbish. She could bust his cloistered life wide open.
Birthday Girl is a pleasant little movie ' amusing if not quite funny, with deft turns by Vincent Cassel and Mathieu Kassovitz as Nadia's partners in crime. Although Chaplin ably makes the transformation from something mild to something wild, it's Kidman, with her Russian accent (and page after page of actual Russian dialogue), who keeps the movie afloat. The performance seems almost too precise, as if she's nailed it down one line at a time. But like Meryl Streep, another precision-tooled actress with a fondness for accents, Kidman has figured out how to use all that technique to generate emotion. She may never become a big star (who cares?), but the acting thing just gets better and better.