Directed by: Catherine Hardwicke
Premise: A cinematic version of the Biblical tale of Christ’s birth. The film focuses on the relationship of Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) and Joseph (Oscar Isaac) and the journey of the three wise men.
What Works: The Nativity Story does a few things that makes it a unique entry in the body of Biblical stories adapted to film. It adds more violence to the drama than has usually been seen in these films, adding a better sense of dramatic urgency, and making it clear that the world Jesus is to be born into is one that is dangerous and real. The picture works best when it is able to get into the intimate moments between Mary and Joseph and their anxieties about being parents. The Nativity Story gives a very different portrayal of Mary, making her much more human and less saintly, a feature that might not be received well by Catholics in the audience, but it does make for a more interesting character. The other positive character innovation in the film is in the three wise men, who engage in playful but crotchety banter that plays effectively as comic relief.
What Doesn’t: The Nativity Story does not add much to this kind of story, which is disappointing coming from director Hardwicke, whose other films (Thirteen, Lords of Dogtown) featured more innovative style and storytelling. Despite some moments that increase the sense of danger, The Nativity Story, like many other Biblical stories adapted to film, suffers from a going-through-the-motions syndrome in which little effort is made to make the plot very different. The most annoying element in the film is the appearance of the angel Gabriel, who comes off like a very lame ghost that stops the film to explain to the characters how they should feel rather than let the drama of the narrative work that out. Despite Mary’s human qualities and the start of an interesting arc for her and Joseph, the story of her relationship with her husband quickly falls into stock Mary and Joseph role-play and the dialogue often stinks of overblown, prophetic language. The threat to the protagonists of the story comes and goes. King Herod (Ciarán Hinds) is the lead villain but he takes little threatening action against the heroes to put them in danger until the very end.
Bottom Line: As a Biblical adaptation, The Nativity Story has some unique elements going for it, but not enough of these elements are carried throughout the film. It ends up as a film that will be enjoyed by the converted, but as a work of cinema it has little to contribute.
Episode: #121 (December 10, 2006)