Handling Bible movies is always a tricky business. People are invested in these stories and straying off the tride and true path can open a director or producer up for some serious controversy. But avoiding controversy by playing everything a little too safe can make for a less than uplifting viewing experience. It doesn’t take more than five minutes to read the Biblical story of the birth of Christ, which means that any movie version that focuses solely on that event is going to need a little padding. The Nativity Story gets its extra by taking a page from the effective and successful film about Jesus’ crucifixion The Passion of the Christ. It leaves that movie’s blood and gore out but tries to make the story more realistic without losing its divine nature. It only partially succeeds.
Screenwriter Mike Rich (The Rookie) has broken the story into three parallel threads. The main story follows Mary (Keisha-Castle Hughes) and Joseph (Oscar Isaac) from before their promise to marry to that famous night in the stable. The side threads include the trip of the three wise men who follow a star to worship the soon to be born Christ and the concern of King Herod (Ciarán Hinds) who worries about a prophesied King of the Jews who will replace him. The three strands only briefly intersect as all three plod along to a well-known conclusion.
Plod is the key word with this movie. The events seem to move along at a pace and with an attitude that conveys none of the wonder and excitement that millions place on the birth of Christ. In fact, the most interesting parts of the story have nothing to do with Mary and Joseph’s arduous journey, but focus on Hinds as Herod worrying about his tenuous hold on power. In addition to the prophesy, his sons have tried to dethrone him and Hinds conveys the unsettled fear in the King’s heart. Hinds gives a good performance, as does Isaac. His Joseph moves from infatuation with Mary, to heartbrokenness at her supposed betrayal, to deepening love for her on the journey. Isaac handles each emotion well, not overdoing any section. Hughes doesn’t fare so well, her Mary is a bit dull and closed off, dropping the overall effectiveness of the story.
The producers clearly hope that this movie will become a Christmas classic, reminding the faithful of the “true meaning” of the holiday. It may generate a regular showing on television simply because it stands alone as a feature film telling focusing on this momentous event. Plus, there are a few divine moments that are staged well. But when put together, the few well staged moments and good performances can’t overcome the staid tone. This disc is a tremendous disappointment. There are no extras other than two trailers and some DVD-Rom links. I’ve heard of saving things for the “special edition” but this is ridiculous. Any period picture, from Palestine in 5 B.C. to 18th century England should have some interesting behind-the-scenes events related to location scouting, costuming, and the like. Here, you get nothing, nada, zip.
The transfer is nice and there is nothing to complain about technically, but the lack of any extras is a definite mark against the release. Frankly, since this will likely become a Christmas-time television staple, as previously mentioned, it would be better to just DVR it next year and jump through the commercials. This would have been a perfect example of extras turning a just-ok movie into a pretty good disc, but like the movie itself, it’s just a missed opportunity.
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