Movie Review: The Nativity Story

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After innocent teen Mary is impregnated by God, she and her husband Joseph must travel to his home town for a census while the king hunts for their unborn child.

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Catherine Hardwicke, 2006

People are living hard in the town of Nazareth under the cruel rule of King Herod (Ciaran Hinds). Herod demands enormous taxes from his people, and those who can’t pay have their children taken into slavery to pay off the debt. After her family sees this, they arrange for teenage Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) to be married to local man Joseph (Oscar Isaac). But apparently God wants Mary for himself, so he sends her a creepy stalker angel to tell her she’s knocked up with his kid. Mary struggles to deal until she goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth (Shohreh Aghdashloo), who is also pregnant at an advanced age thanks to God’s super fertility interference. Mary then has to return to Nazareth and face the daunting task of explaining her pregnant state to everyone, including her fiance. Meanwhile, Herod arranges a census to force everybody to go back to their hometowns so he can track down the man prophesied to defeat him.

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Remember that time when all Bible epics wanted to tap into that Lord of the Rings market? No? Apparently Catherine Hardwicke does. It’s basically this and that godawful Noah movie that Darren Aronofsky made for a much bigger budget with much less coherence. The Nativity Story is an extensively padded version of the same tale from the Bible as told from Mary’s point of view, which would be great if Mary at any point emoted anything she was meant to be feeling. Keisha Castle-Hughes is painfully flat in this movie. At no point did I understand any part of her journey, even when this earnest but rather painful retelling of the story had an interesting take on it. The idea of Mary’s immaculate conception being a real struggle for her in the culture and time that she lived could be fascinating. The scenes with the always excellent Shohreh Aghdashloo were intriguing, both from a storytelling point of view and a historical one. The film finally relaxes its constant imitation of Lord of the Rings for five minutes to tell a story that is specific to this character in this time. Then she goes home, we get about ten minutes of the best part of the story – Mary trying to hold on to her pride and her beliefs as people turn against her – before that is way too easily resolved and they’re off to Bethlehem. The literal deus ex machina of God constantly popping in and fixing the problems is incredibly irritating, and I don’t care if that’s what happens in the book. Oscar Isaac could have really been given an arc from asshole Joseph to supportive Joseph if they hadn’t explained it all away with a dream.

There are so many storytelling mistakes in this movie. We don’t return to Herod nearly often enough, and his total separation from the main storyline make him a weak and unconvincing villain despite Ciaran Hinds’ best efforts. He has one scene with his son that really stands out, but the fact that we’ve never seen the son before and we’ll never see him again kind of dilutes the tension. Attempting to make the three wise men into comic relief characters doesn’t work – we don’t really know or care about them as characters, and also, they’re not funny. These weird steps seem to be taken in order to make the movie feel more epic than it is, as does the Palantir-esque “vision” that Elizabeth’s husband gets at the start of the movie, and the shots of men on horseback sacking villages. It’s all very Rohan in The Two Towers, until we get to Jerusalem, which is more Minas Tirith. Attempting Lord of the Rings on a budget like this movie has is certainly ambitious, but it doesn’t work. The movie is much better in small emotional moments – Elizabeth supporting Mary, Joseph frantically finding somewhere for his wife to give birth, basically anything where those two actors get to act. It’s sometimes cheesy, sometimes overreaching, but rarely a good movie.

The Nativity Story on IMDb

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