Catherine Hardwicke's first two films proved she understands teenage wastelands and respects adolescent hope. There's a sad optimism amid the R-rated realities of Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown making them feel honest, not exploitative.
Their risque themes made Hardwicke a surprising choice to direct The Nativity Story, based on the biblical account of Jesus' birth. The empathy that softened the shocks of earlier works shines bright in this earnestly pious period piece. Galilee and Judea are simply other wastelands bearing down on another teenage girl coping with virginity, this one named Mary.
Academy Award nominee Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider) plays Mary of Nazareth, who hesitantly awaits her arranged marriage to kind Joseph (Oscar Isaac). Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel (Alexander Siddig), who says she'll become pregnant with God's son who will become the world's savior.
Mary's pregnancy begins showing and nobody believes she's still virginal. This embarrasses her family and places Joseph in a tough position: call off the wedding and leave Mary to be stoned for sinning, or accept a sullied reputation.
Mary takes the unwed mother route to live with her Aunt Elizabeth (Shohreh Aghdashloo) who, despite her advanced age, is also pregnant by divine design. Her son will be John the Baptist. The two women strengthen their faith, and Mary returns home where Joseph is waiting to become her husband.
Meanwhile, King Herod (Ciaran Hinds) worries about a prediction that a new king will soon be born. He orders the slaughter of male children to prevent this, depicted by Hardwicke with restraint. Herod also must please Roman emperor Caesar Augustus, whose plans to build an opulent shrine to himself require more tax revenues.
Both events force Mary and Joseph's escape to Bethlehem and an iconic manger. Not far behind are three wise men (Nadim Sawalha, Eriq Ebouaney, Stefan Kalipha) whose studies of scrolls and stars send them journeying to Bethlehem for something miraculous.
Screenwriter Mike Rich faces the same hurdle all Bible adapters do: filling gaps in character development, dialogue and drama that apostle authors didn't provide. Rich writes well within PG standards and Christmas spirit. Nothing will ruffle any robes.
However, Rich occasionally works like a minister dropping a joke in the middle of a sermon. The wise men bicker like grumpy old men for comic relief. Joseph and Mary's journey should be perilous, but a near-drowning scene stretches for drama, especially when we're certain of their survival.
The Nativity Story is lovingly detailed by Hardwicke, a former production designer, and presented with utmost reverence. It won't convert viewers as Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ did, but it won't divide them either.
Steve Persall can be reached at (727) 893-8365 or email@example.com.
The Nativity Story
Director: Catherine Hardwicke
Cast: Keisha Castle-Hughes, Oscar Isaac, Hiam Abbass, Shaun Toub, Alexander Siddig, Ciaran Hinds, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Nadim Sawalha, Eriq Ebouaney, Stefan Kalipha
Screenplay: Mike Rich
Rating: PG; brief violence, mild peril
Running time: 102 min.