There’s a reason why Christmas pageants tend to clock in at about 20 minutes — a reason that Catherine Hardwicke’s 100-minute The Nativity Story demonstrates with tedious tenacity. The problem is simple: There’s just not all that much story, plus the story is so well known and has been told so often that a straightforward film of it is woefully bereft of surprises. Hardwicke’s movie is about as exciting as a Sunday school filmstrip presentation. No doubt there is a market for this kind of Hallmark greeting card approach. It’s nice to look at and properly reverential, and it will play to audiences more interested in the subject matter than in movies. For anyone else, the film is probably on par with visiting a live nativity scene. (It lacks the attendant barnyard odor, but in exchange it takes a lot longer.)
It’s tempting to say it’s the sort of movie Cecil B. DeMille might have made 50 years ago, but that’s not quite true. DeMille would have circumvented the PR nightmare of 16-year-old star Keisha Castle-Hughes’ (Whale Rider) unmarried pregnancy with a well-worded morality clause in her contract. But more, he would never have made the Bible this dull.
There’s an irony that the old showman DeMille would have produced a livelier film than the one delivered by “edgy” Hardwicke. The closest she comes to her much touted edginess here is in the utterly pointless framing device of beginning and ending the movie with the “slaughter of the innocents,” and in portraying the characters (lily white baby Jesus to one side) as dark-skinned and speaking with vaguely Middle Eastern accents.
The screenplay by Mike Rich (Radio) pads the story with little embellishments (see Joseph fight the snake and save Mary from drowning!) and makes peculiar stabs at weak humor. (The Three Wise Men are presented as bickering magicians, resulting in something that lands between bad Borscht Belt comics and the wizards overseeing the action in the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour.) Other ideas seem just as ill-advised, as witness the Wizard of Oz-like voice of God telling Zechariah (Stanley Townsend, The Libertine) that he’s going to become the father of John the Baptist. (This, at least, is instructional, since Zechariah presumes to argue with the Lord and is struck dumb for his insolence — a valuable warning if you’re ever in this position.)
With the exception of Ciaran Hinds’ (Munich) lip-smacking Herod, the acting is stiff to the point of ossification, and unintentionally amusing in the offhand manner in which the characters accept their fates, especially Castle-Hughes, who boasts about one and a half expressions in the entire film. Even so, that’s half an expression more than the film itself can claim. Rated PG for some violent content.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke