The Nativity Story is not simply a Christmas story but the most extravagant Sunday School Christmas play ever, it even sneaks the music of “Silent Night” into the score’s final reprise. Director Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen) grounds the story in a realistic fashion, yet she doesn’t try to explain away the miraculous stuff with convenient explanations.
Mary is still a virgin and everyone still gets their important messages from God through the Archangel Gabriel, but then the Star of Bethlehem is shown to be a convergence of three other lights in the sky as divined by the Wise Men. Hardweicke sticks pretty close to the script (Bible), so it’s the Nativity story you know without any Passion of the Christ–style gotcha moments.
Hardwicke beautifully captures the scenery of Morocco and Italy, which doubles for the Holy Land in the first century. Keisha Castle-Hughes and Oscar Issac are good together as Mary and Joseph; I think the movie really captures the beats of what that relationship might have been like. The three actors playing the Wise Men have great chemistry as they ride into the west on camel back while joshing each other about who’s going to turn out right about the prophesy. Meanwhile in Jerusalem, King Harod (Ciaran Hinds) is being played like some kind of mustache-twirling villain, plotting his victory over this unknown Messiah figure that will derail his precious tyranny.
While not being terribly original (but when the materials 2000 years old you work with what you got), The Nativity Story is earnest and well-made. Like the advertising says, it most assuredly puts the Christ back into Christmas and it does so in a satisfying way. Definitely appropriate for families and family-minded people who want to remember or experience the reason for the season.