Directed by Catherine Hardwicke
This is the story of The Nativity. Says so in the title.
When it comes to Biblical films, for me Biblical themes and theological accuracy are important. Too often directors or writers or actors try to do something new or different. I am not sure if that is necessarily the right thing to do in any religiously based film. Doing so dilutes and removes the message or themes that made the movie worth making. We were spared that here. What we get is a theologically solid film where the Nativity Story is faithfully brought to life.
This is no Pureflix or other bargain basement, poorly acted Christian production either. While on the lower cost side, they create a vibrant world that looks like it was pulled from history and not from cheap art. The rabbis, Romans, general population and even Herod’s men dress in a way unique to who or what they are rather than everyone have some vaguely robe-like garment. I am not sure if the costumes were period authentic or not, but they look like they could have been. They were not generic robes or vaguely Romanesque outfits. You knew who was what based on dress.
They do not try to use grandiose special effects to get a reaction from the audience. Instead they rely on, shockingly, the acting to get you to feel. In a film like this it would be easy for the filmmakers to use the default of special effects, but they do not here. Admittedly this is a lower budget film, but that money looks to have gone into creating a believable environment and not things that look cool.
The acting by Keisha Castle-Hughes as Mary, Oscar Isaac as Joseph, a devious Ciarán Hinds as Herod the Great, Shohreh Aghdashloo as Elizabeth among others is strong without being melodramatic. They are portrayed as real people faced with extraordinary circumstances. And in the Bible that is what all involved in any passage were. They were normal people of the time called by a higher power to be part of something extraordinary. In this film that is what they are as well. They are nobody special.
Mary is a peasant girl living in a culture with strict social rules. Joseph is a young man facing marriage and the pressures that brings. Herod is a politician seeking to maintain his power and remove a perceived threat to it. Their parts are not overdone. Mary is not given to dramatic pronouncements nor does she smack you in the face with piety. Joseph is not racked with fear and uncertainty. Herod is not some moustache twirling villain though he is threatening. It is all kept grounded.
This is a beautifully scripted telling of the Biblical narrative. The dialogue and reactions flow naturally and there is a slow build of anticipation towards the finale that we all know is coming. If you do not know how the story ends you probably have not spent much if any time in a church. Yet despite those viewers that know the outcome, Catherine Hardwicke manages to build anticipation of not only the next scene but of the outcome.
The movie does build up the three Magi-Caspar (Stefan Kalipha), Melchior (Nadim Sawalha), and Balthasar (Eriq Ebouaney) who also provide the bulk of the humor that you will find in this film. I am not complaining on that necessarily. These are important individuals in the Bible, and they are important to the narrative here but there really is not too much in the Good Book about them. Even the number of Magi is not specified so a little play is acceptable. However they do keep with tradition rather than go completely off on their own when it comes to number and names.
I am not sure of Catherine Hardwicke’s religious leanings but at the minimum it looks like she took the time out to understand the material from a religious perspective and produce an uplifting story. Some of this could be owed to Mike Rich who wrote the script. He is connected to such feelgood stuff as The Rookie (2002), uncredited work on Miracle (2004) as well as Invincible (2006), Cars 3 (2017) along with several others. Whatever you may think of their quality is besides the point here. They make you feel good and at times even uplifted.
They try nothing new here nor really should they. You do not need to reimagine the Nativity Story. If you do then maybe you should not be the one making it. This is not the place to do your own thing.
The Nativity Story is not over produced which happens all too often. They keep things simple to tell the story clearly. I am not sure there are very many special effect shots here. This film is carried largely on acting. Even the appearance of angels is relatively simple and not very grandiose until the angel Gabriel (Alexander Siddig) addresses the shepherds and even that is somewhat muted.
The music is great here. One thing that really strikes me is at the end of the film they turn the song “The Carol of the Bells” into a very dramatic piece of music as Joseph is pounding on door after door looking for a place for the night so Mary can give birth.
The Nativity Story is a beautiful and well-crafted presentation. It is an authentic film which at its core has Biblical themes and the real meaning of Christmas. No matter your spiritual leanings you will enjoy this excellent film.