An immaculate conception, a 100-mile journey to Bethlehem, quite a bit divine intervention, three wise men, one humble birth.
Externally, there’s not much to the plot of the nativity. After all, it is something mostly reenacted each year as a nativity scene.
That’s precisely why The Nativity Story seems ripe to become emotionally fascinating in the hands of Catherine Hardwicke. A maker of movies about promiscuous tweeners and starry-eyed high-school skaters seems an odd fit for a Biblical tale. But Mary was a conflicted teen pregnant with Jesus, and Hardwicke has keen insight into the maelstrom of teens forced into adulthood.
Not that Mary should rebelliously sport piercings or pull ollies, but it would be interesting to see her internal struggle with carrying the messiah and just how much influence a human mother could have on a child such as that. Thanks largely to the straightforward acting style of Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider) as Mary, the idea of the motherly imperative is at least briefly considered.
Everything else is restrained, respectful and earnestly told, but delivered in an annoying shorthand style. The angel Gabriel (Alexander Siddig) isn’t referred to by name. Composer Mychael Danna relies upon cues from “Silent Night” and other Christmas carols for emotional connection. Intentionally or not, nighttime scenes at King Herod’s castle resemble The Lord of the Rings. Even the title font has the same stone-etched look as The Passion of the Christ.
The Nativity Story is a softer tale of birth rather than death, but at least Mel Gibson’s film offered more spiritual contemplation. Hardwicke’s restless camera zooms and pans gave a fly-on-the-wall feel to her past work. Here, it’s indicative of how the movie just zips from one half-formed Biblical subplot to the next. Filmed cutaway segments for History Channel documentaries look more polished and likely have stronger narrative focus than this film.
Hardwicke should’ve stuck with Mary and Joseph (Oscar Isaac), the reserved carpenter betrothed to Mary even though she has no feelings for him. For months, she is to attend to him in all wifely duties except that of procreation. When she returns from a long visit visibly with child, Joseph understandably wrestles with feelings about her fidelity and their future. Visited by Gabriel in a dream, Joseph learns how important his forgiveness and assistance will be to the pregnancy.
The gradual love between Joseph and Mary is glossed over, but there are fleeting snippets of true vulnerability. In a moment of weakness during a 100-mile journey to Bethlehem, Joseph asks Mary “What can I possibly teach him?” The family-to-be is on the trek by order of a census by tyrannical King Herod (a snarling Ciaran Hinds), who orders his subjects back to the place of their birth in order to weed out the messiah of whom he’s heard.
Too much of The Nativity Story feels like chopped-up pieces crammed in from a longer, naturally flowing director’s cut: Herod’s political paranoia over his son’s possible power play that goes nowhere; the heavenly vision that strikes dumb Mary’s cousin Zechariah (Stanley Townsend); even the Persian pilgrimage by the three wise men, who are marked as comic relief not necessarily because they say anything funny but by the flighty music in the background of their scenes.
Even they speak in somber tones, and for a film about the birth of Jesus, there’s nothing particularly joyous or inspiring. Perhaps that’s just because it’s dolled up with dull, disinteresting details that too strongly disconnect from the human frailty and folly that no doubt would have had to be overcome on the road to the event.