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The Nativity Story

Away in a Manger

With the holiday season in full swing, studios are earnestly trotting out any and all films that tap into the "yuletide" spirit. Typically, these "holiday films" barely ascend a step beyond mediocrity (The Family Stone) and far too many fall many steps below (Christmas With The Kranks). One of this year’s more intriguing yuletide flicks is Catherine Hardwicke’s The Nativity Story.

It’s a story that many of us have some familiarity with (even agnostics such as myself), but despite the fact that the story of the birth of Christ is the nucleus for the biggest holiday of the year, it’s a story that has not been told in great detail on the silver screen. The Nativity Story ambitiously attempts to tell this story in an authentic and compelling manner and to some degree achieves this.

Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes), Joseph (Oscar Isaac), and the residents of the town of Nazareth lead a bleak existence. Oppressed by the paranoid and tyrannical King Herod, hope and faith are hard to come by. Crippling taxation practices have those living in Nazareth on the brink of starvation and ruin.

Yet just when hope is all but lost, Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel who brings news that she will bear the son of God and his name will be Jesus. Salvation is nigh. King Herod fears the prophesized arrival of the messiah and promptly mandates a census that he hopes will reveal the man who will end his reign.

The story itself is compelling enough and Mike Rich’s screenplay is by and large faithful to the biblical gospels of Matthew and Luke. Complementing the solid writing of The Nativity Story is Catherine Hardwicke’s able hand. Hardwicke has extensive experience as a production designer and everything about the film has an air of authenticity.

Unfortunately, this authenticity doesn’t extend to the performances put forth in The Nativity Story. This is particularly evident with Mary (the most important character in the film). Keisha Castle-Hughes received wild acclaim for her Oscar nominated performance in The Whale Rider, but her turn as Mary isn’t nearly as impressive.

Rather than "showing" the audience what she’s feeling, Keisha internalizes much of what she’s experiencing. For much of the film, Castle-Hughes simply looks concerned and earnest. We see little else. Hardwicke didn’t help much by making the unfortunate decision to use an abundance of voiceovers to offset the lukewarm performance. It often feels like this Mary’s just going through the motions.

Fortunately, Oscar Isaac does an excellent job as the conflicted, but devoted Joseph. Isaac does a solid job of conveying his inner conflict. He’s not the father of this child and has his doubts, but he’s still unwaveringly committed to Mary and committed to the child they will raise. Isaac’s performance handily trumps Castle-Hughes’ turn as Mary.

What we’re left with in The Nativity Story is a film that has an air of authenticity, a compelling story, but the key performance (or under performance) of Castle-Hughes’ as Mary prevents the film from being anything other than simply average. Had Hardicke managed to elicit a performance on par with what Castle-Hughes did in Whale Rider, we’d have a very different (arguably better) film on our hands.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars