Catherine Hardwicke got hired to direct this latest in a long line of Biblio-pics — probably juiced up to green-light status in the immediate aftermath of Mel Gibson’s lucrative Passion play — based, no doubt, upon her résumé. It stands to reason (doesn’t it?) that the director of Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown might be able to bring a new perspective to the story of Mary, mother of Jesus — the ultimate troubled teen. But, beyond one mild, short-lived objection to her arranged marriage to Joseph, there’s not much here that could be construed as revisionism.
In fact, The Nativity Story is just about as perfunctory and old-fashioned as can be. This is partly by design. It’s obviously meant to appeal to the widest possible audience without causing offense, and that means new twists or fresh perspectives on the well-worn story are beside the point. (You could say, politely, that screenwriter Mike Rich, who brought us Finding Forrester and Radio, seems to specialize in the well-worn story.) Instead, Hardwicke plays it almost completely straight — this film’s idea of comic relief is a trio of droll magi who joke about maps and camels on their way to Bethlehem. Keisha Castle-Hughes makes a thoughtful Mary and Oscar Isaac is a stalwart, unassuming Joseph, but journeyman Irish actor Ciarán Hinds steals the show as evil King Herod, eager to slay all the children of Bethelehem in order that prophecy not come to pass. And composer Mychael Danna has a field day, borrowing from “Silent Night” and “What Child Is This” to fill out the score.
It’s all engaging, but flat, and it unimaginatively squanders some of the story’s most famous details, such as Joseph’s fruitless search for vacancies at any of the local flophouses — I remember the Sunday School version having more grit and immediacy. There’s also a frustrating insistence on spelling everything out. The scene where King Herod’s tax collectors descend on Nazareth to cruelly demand their share of the town’s scarce resources is followed almost immediately by one showing Herod himself demanding ever-more-elaborate modifications to the plans for his palace at Masada, including a large fountain and gold tiles. For the slower ones in the audience, the scene is capped with a tedious back-and-forth explaining, out loud, that Herod is taxing his subjects into poverty in the name of his own meaningless extravagances. The bulk of Hardwicke’s IMDb credits are as production designer, and she can be a tasteful stylist. Mary’s first vision, which appears as a soft, out-of-focus figure seen on the horizon, is a gorgeous moment allowing you to imagine, just, that maybe that’s what an angel would really look like. But subsequent visitations — solemn, semi-transparent dudes in white robes — feel kind of low-rent, like Hallmark Hall of Fame affairs.
There’s only one shot that had the power to take my breath away, and that’s the overhead view of all the shepherds outside Bethlehem making their way down the slope into town, each in his own isolation, following after the angels heard on high in puzzlement and wonder. It’s straight out of scripture, of course, but it’s one of the few images that this very efficiently tooled film allows room to breathe. It’s almost a throwaway (a rarity in a movie that’s perhaps too-efficiently whittled down to the very core of its source material) but it somehow summons up the spirit of the real Bible stories, in all their simultaneous grandeur and weirdness, better than anything else in this uninspired, very polite sermon.
Director: Catherine Hardwicke
Writer: Mike Rich
Cinematographer: Elliot Davis
Editors: Robert K. Lambert and Stuart Levy
Music: Mychael Danna
Production Design: Stefano Maria Ortolani
Costumes: Maurizio Millenotti