Reviewer: Charity Bishop
One of the most beloved stories in
scripture is how Jesus came into being, through the spoken
word of God and two extremely young, willing people to serve
His will. It was a time of great tribulation in Judea. This
is the first attempt that has been made to make a big-budget
film about Mary and Joseph, and the miraculous baby born
beneath a triumphant star. Overall, it is excellent, but
individually, the characters needed more depth.
Judea lies beneath the heavy hand of Rome, through the leadership of King Herod (Ciarán Hinds), who is more concerned for his own well-being than that of his people. It has come time for the annual taxes and many families in the area do not have enough to pay their debt. Children, donkeys, and property are forfeit, among them the only pack animal owned by Mary's father. Young and naive of the world, Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) spends her hours working hard in the family business and selling bread to the older, wealthier widows of the district. Joseph, (Oscar Isaac) the local carpenter, has fallen in love with her, and asks for her hand in marriage. It is given. Mary is uncertain of the engagement. Then comes a messenger of God (Alexander Siddig) to tell her that she will bear the child of God, and future savior of her people.
Frightened but willing to serve her heavenly father, Mary agrees. Frightened for what it is to come, and the shunning she will receive from family and friends, she journeys to the house of her cousin Elizabeth (Shohreh Aghdashloo) who, miraculously, is carrying a child in her own age. Her husband Zechariah (Stanley Townsend) is very understanding toward Mary's plight, an emotion not shared by her family when she returns six months pregnant. In the meantime, three wise men from the East have been studying various prophecies and astronomy and believe that soon three planets will align, creating the illusion of a powerful star over Judea, and signifying the coming of the messiah. From there, the story follows the biblical account. It's one of the better-produced films I have seen, with a slew of decent actors and careful thought and preparation to its outline.
I know a great deal about the culture and time due to extensive research for one of my books, and for the most part the screenplay paints a realistic view of life during that time, including the brutality of the Roman soldiers and the egocentric traits of Herod. It introduces his self-serving son in a minor role (the Herod who would be alive during Christ's crucifixion) and pays careful attention to scripture as it unfolds the story. In that respect, it's very worthwhile.
However, there is one crucial
ingredient missing: Passion. Enthusiasm. Emotion. The Jews
were an emotional culture, but none of that bleeds through,
particularly in Mary. The one central force from which the
story evolves, Mary is stoic to the point of being boring.
She should have been the most likable, interesting
character, but instead seems a banal presence around which
other characters revolve. I don't know if it's Keisha's
fault for not being enthusiastic about the role, the fact
that the script doesn't give her much to work with, or poor
directing, but she shows nothing ... not when the angel
comes to her, or when she awakens in the night, or even when
Joseph tells her he will take the baby as his own and be
bound to her in marriage, even at the sake of being shunned
right along with her. The most she cracks is a smile where
I expected abundant gratitude, even tears of joy. This is
all the more sad, because the other characters are fabulous.
You get a sense of evil from Herod, the wise men are
appropriately humorous, and Joseph is awesome! Mild-mannered
but strong, caring to the point of giving his last share of
bread to the family donkey, and frightened when helping Mary
deliver her child.
The Nativity Story is very faithful in its approach, and will make a fine traditional Christmas watch for most Christian families.
Mary is shamed when she returns pregnant, and most people turn their backs on her. Joseph faces similar scorn when it is believed that the child is his.
An implication that a bull is about to be killed for a sacrifice, individuals in passing skinning dead animals, and some travel difficulties (Mary nearly drowns while forging a river, a donkey almost slips off a cliff, and two birthing scenes are reenacted).
Other:There is a palm reader in Jerusalem.