'Nativity Story': Faithful to a Fault
To its credit, "The Nativity Story," which was written by Mike Rich and directed by Catherine Hardwicke, puts the virgin birth in its proper personal and historical context. The film reminds us that Mary -- played by Keisha Castle-Hughes -- was betrothed to Joseph (Oscar Isaac) as a result of an arranged marriage; here, she's skeptical and a bit sullen at the prospect of marrying a guy she doesn't love. Cutting away from Mary's difficult life in the desert, Hardwicke portrays the three wise men prophesying the birth of a Jewish messiah, and also the court of King Herod (Ciaran Hinds), who, when he gets wind that such a king is on the way, orders all male children of a certain age in his kingdom killed.
"The Nativity Story" thus sets up the journey on which these paths will inexorably cross; indeed, with Herod's dreadful plan in motion, the story has all the makings of a groundbreaking spiritual thriller. But Hardwicke plays it safe, duly hitting all the familiar marks and trotting out all the familiar tropes. (See Film Notes on Page 43.)
The marvelous Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo brings earthy realism to her performance as Mary's cousin Elizabeth, whose own late-in-life pregnancy augurs the miracle to come. But Castle-Hughes is disappointing as Mary, whom she portrays in an affectless performance that seems of a piece with the monochrome olive palette of the desert backdrop.
This drab exercise in glum piety slumps where it should soar, sapping the story of its mystery and transcendence with an overriding sense of literality. As the familiar characters take their famous journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, it often looks like they're treading on eggshells, painstakingly trying to avoid offense, misinterpretation or controversy with every careful step.
-- Ann Hornaday
The Nativity Story PG, 102 minutes Contains some violent content. Area theaters.