Mary, a teenage girl growing up in Rome-occupied Nazareth, is betrothed to Joseph, a modest but kind carpenter. An angel tells her she will bear a child from God and after negotiating the anger and confusion of her family and Joseph at how this could be, she then finds that she, Joseph and the boy growing inside her must make the 100-mile journey to Bethlehem, as a result of a census ordered by Caesar. Meanwhile, Herod is troubled by prophesies regarding a king who will rise up against him and three astrologers from Persia are stirred by an aligning of stars and planets, promising the arrival of something, or someone, very special.
Although The Nativity Story received a far from rousing reception on its original release, it cannot be denied that it has an important place in any Christmas Video Vault. After all, this is where it all started, this is why we celebrate this time of the year. But is the film itself any good? In a word, yes.
Although the film is very low-key in its approach (no sky-filling choirs of angels, no rousing set-pieces), this is entirely fitting and the film is stronger for it. Though the events now resonate with eternity spanning significance, at the time Mary was simply an unexpectedly pregnant teenage girl, riding to a census in Bethlehem on the back of a donkey. There is a welcome and involving sense of time and place to the scenes in and around Nazareth and the characters, so well known to us whatever our beliefs about Jesus himself, feel fleshed out and real. The casting is excellent across the board, with talented unknowns and a few bigger names littered across the principals (Ciaran Hinds as Herod, Whale Rider’s Keisha Castle-Hughes as Mary, Alexander Siddig as Gabriel) and Catherine Hardwicke’s direction is attentive and considered.
Although everyone knows what is going to happen – no room at the inn, shepherds in the fields, wise men travelling from afar, the flight to Egypt – and correspondingly some dramatic tension is lost as Herod hatches his plan to wipe out the possible challenge to his throne, the story is beautifully presented and carefully and lovingly performed. As Jesus comes into the world and light shines down from heaven through a gap in the wall of the stone-hewn stable, the film becomes affecting and moving as the humility, simplicity and fragility of Jesus is presented front and centre.
This won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, especially if you don’t believe that Jesus is “the reason for the season”, but there is much to enjoy here regardless, especially stand-out performances by Castle-Hughes as Mary and Oscar Isaac (Sucker Punch, Robin Hood, Drive) as Joseph. Try to track it down and remind yourself of why Christmas is celebrated.