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Birthday Girl

A lonely bachelor finds that his Russian mail-order bride isn't what he expected in this romantic comedy that turns abruptly into a thriller. Quiet, slightly prissy bank clerk John Buckingham (Ben Chaplin) hasn't had much luck in love. His last girlfriend dumped him, and pickings are slim in sleepy St. Albans, the London commuter suburb where he lives and works. So he turns to "From Russia With Love," a website that features charming, bilingual, marriage-minded Russian women looking to correspond with foreigners. And there he meets Nadia: After they get to know each other by mail, John agrees to bring her to England. But the Nadia (Nicole Kidman) who arrives at the airport is rather different from the girl with whom he's been exchanging letters. She's certainly beautiful, but she chain smokes — John specified a non-smoker — and doesn't speak one word of English. John wants to send her back, but the staff at "From Russia With Love" is suddenly incommunicado. And the eminently pragmatic Nadia knows the way to a man's heart (hint: it's not through his stomach). Just as the film's uneasy take on modern romance is settling into its groove (uneasy because it flirts with highly charged issues of power and exploitation, issues exacerbated by John's little rope kink), two additional Russians appear at John's door. The coarse Alexei (Vincent Cassel) introduces himself as Nadia's cousin, while wise guy Yuri (Mathieu Kassovitz) says he's an old friend; together they're here to surprise Nadia on her birthday. But they introduce a disruptive, vaguely menacing vibe and next thing you know, the romance has mutated into a thriller: John learns he's a pawn in a cruel, elaborate con that involves forcing him to rob his bank branch. And there are more surprises to come. Shot in 1999, this film reportedly required 11th-hour additional shooting and underwent considerable editing at the hands of distributor Miramax before finally earning a 2002 release date. The Butterworth brothers — director/co-writer Jez, co-writer Tom and producer Stephen — seem to have been inspired by Jonathan Demme's equally fractured SOMETHING WILD (1986), and while they finesse the sudden shift in tone less smoothly, it's still a deft balancing job. Kidman accomplishes a remarkable feat of transformation, adopting not only an accent, but a slightly seedy, faintly feral demeanor that almost makes you forget her icy good looks and fashion model's figure. Cassel and Kassovitz, both French, are equally impressive.