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The Nativity Story

Keisha Castle-Hughes (left) as Mary and Hiam Abbass (right) as Anna

Director Catherine Hardwicke
New Line Cinema 2006 PG

Every year around this time I am besieged by RE teachers in our state schools looking for resources they might use to communicate the story of Jesus’ birth effectively.

With the release of The Nativity Story I think those RE teachers might just have hit the jackpot.

Starring Keisha (Whale Rider) Castle-Hughes as Mary this movie is not a made-for-DVD special aimed for the shelves of Christian bookshops. This is a general release film made by New Line Cinema and part from an occasional special effect not quite up to scratch (I have never seen Jerusalem look more like a model than in the opening scene!), this is a major motion picture.

Importantly, the script remains relatively faithful to the biblical text, though the film does open with the suitably PG slaughter of Bethlehem’s infants for dramatic effect, and then goes into flashback to depict what led to this event.

What impresses most visually is that the film looks very, very authentically Middle Eastern and true to its time period. There are numerous scenes that show us the lifestyles and activities of the 4 AD locals, so many so that in some scenes, the tone almost veers into documentary-style at times. But in a story that is so well known, this detail which fleshes out the lives of the characters is welcome

Most importantly to me, the film is at its best when exploring the emotions of the key players, making them more than the one-dimensional cardboard cut-outs we have become used to in Nativity tableaus. The way Mary is treated by her village and family once she conceives but is not fully "married" is especially good, I think.

While Castle-Hughes may underplay Mary at times, she is surrounded by some great performances, especially Oscar Isaac’s turn as Joseph, the man who must learn his place as the physical father of God’s son, whilst shouldering the burden of the snickers of his former friends who see him as a cuckolded husband of a less than virtuous wife.

Mary’s parents and cousin Elizabeth are also good and mention must be made of a suitably beatific Angel Gabriel (played by Alexander Siddig, Star Trek DS9 fans!)

On the down side, the film does imagine three magi more known from Christmas cards than the biblical record, and they do arrive at the birth of Jesus, rather than later. But let’s not quibble. These wise men are appreciated for the gentle touches of humour they provide.

Director Catherine Hardwicke has created a fresh retelling of a foundational story, one that will have a long shelf life for those interested in sharing the joy.

Reviewed by Jonathan Sargeant Religious Education and Chaplaincy in State Schools Officer with the Anglican Children’s ministry and RE Team (ACRE) in Brisbane

Photo : Keisha Castle-Hughes (left) as Mary and Hiam Abbass (right) as Anna