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Birthday Girl

It’s make-or-break time for Nicole Kidman. No longer one half of a Hollywood glamour couple — look, it’s Tom and Nicole! — the newly emancipated Kidman is out there on her own. And as far as her career goes, she’s kicking butt. After two divergent but dazzling performances in 2001 — a dying chanteuse in Moulin Rouge and a killer mama in The Others — Kidman starts off the new year playing a mail-order bride in Birthday Girl. Ouch! Angelina Jolie took a similar role in Original Sin, and she’s still trying to live that turkey down.

Look for Kidman to beat the jinx. Forget the years that this Aussie actress wasted on splashy swill (Batman Forever, Practical Magic) and playing consort to her husband in Days of Thunder, Far and Away and Stanley Kubrick’s misbegotten Eyes Wide Shut. Since her promising early work in Dead Calm and Flirting, Kidman has realized her full potential only once — as the killingly ambitious weathergirl in Gus Van Sant’s To Die For in 1995. Oscar stupidly ignored her spectacular performance. Detractors find something coldly imperious in her beauty.

Birthday Girl, fresh from its premiere at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, should thaw those objections. The film itself is merely serviceable — a sexy ride that doesn’t dare enough dangerous curves. It’s Kidman who brings heart and erotic heat to the role of Nadia, the Russian babe whom shy Brit bank teller John Buckingham, appealingly played by Ben Chaplin, orders on the Internet. John almost sends Nadia back because she can’t speak English. He changes his mind when Nadia brings his centerfold fantasies to life in bed.

The plot, such as it is, thickens when Nadia invites her cousin Yuri (Mathieu Kassovitz) and his pal Alexei (Vincent Cassel) to visit on her birthday. You’re right to be suspicious, and it’s not just that two French actors are playing Russians. British director Jez Butterworth (Mojo), who wrote the script with his brother Tom — their brother Steve co-produced — hits more than a few bumps as the movie lurches from merry to menacing. But keep your eye on Kidman, whose kinky, kittenish performance turns unexpected emotional corners that pull you up short. Birthday Girl shows Kidman is one diva who is not afraid of challenge — she’s currently filming the low-budget Dogville for Danish wildman Lars Von Trier. Will the risks continue? Blow out the candles and make a wish.

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