Catherine Hardwicke has had a long career as a production designer and, more recently, started directing with the teen drama "Thirteen" and "Lords of Dogtown", a fictional take on the legendary surf and skate scene portrayed in the doc "Dogtown and Z-Boys". Screenwriter Mike Rich has penned films like "The Rookie" and "Radio". Both would seem rather unlikely choices for "The Nativity Story", but the film did grab some mild interest upon release last Christmas.
Early in the movie Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes - unbelievably good in "Whale Rider" and certainly deserving of her Best Actress nomination for that film) works in Nazareth while trying to get by. Not long after, she's visited in a field by the angel Gabriel (Alexander Siddig), who informs her that she's been chosen to carry the son of God. Although the actual birth is worrying, Mary also finds the prospect of having to explain this pregnancy - especially when she wasn't supposed to be intimate with Joseph at the time - to the rest of the village a tad difficult prospect. However, the unlikely pregnancy of an older relative (Shohreh Agdashloo) and Joseph's understanding save Mary. The remainder of the film focuses on the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem and the birth of Christ.
"The Nativity Story" isn't going for an old-fashioned epic feel, keeping the running time under a couple of hours and keeping the visual focus on the characters instead of going for the sense of scope. The $35M production seems to get the look and feel of the time and place accurately, as well, thanks to strong production design work by Stefano Maria Ortolani ("Mission: Impossible III", "Gangs of New York", "Exorcism: The Beginning".) Hardwicke also brings along cinematographer Elliott Davis, who's been the cinematographer for both of Hardwicke's other directorial efforts.
That said, the film does have some issues, including the fact that the majority of the film seems a little too delicately handled, as if the production wanted to not possibly offend anyone in the very slightest. While I'm not advocating any sort of departure from the story, everyone involved seems so focused on presenting the story in as straightforward a manner as possible that it results in the movie seeming dry and sometimes bland. Given the sort of wild-eyed intensity Hardwicke produced in the uneven "Thirteen", one would think that she would give the film more passion than there is here. Overall, the film could have been directed by anyone, and the chosing of Hardwicke as director still seems questionable as the credits roll.
The performances are passable and somewhat inconsistent. Castle-Hughes, whose performance in "Whale Rider" still ranks as one of my favorites of the past five years, gives a performance here that often seems surprisingly flat. On the other end of the scale, Hinds goes a bit over-the-top as King Harrod. The majority of the cast underplays too much, though. Overall, "Navity Story" will likely satisfy those seeking a wholesome (although it wouldn't be for the youngest viewers) tale. However, the picture's average performances and low-key feel keeps it from being more memorable.
VIDEO: "The Nativity Story" is presented by New Line in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. This is an acceptable presentation, but not up to the studio's usual efforts. Sharpness and detail are reasonably good throughout; while the picture never appears crystal clear, it also never looked soft, either.
Problems include some visible edge enhancement in several scenes, which does prove to be a bit distracting. Otherwise, the picture looked clean, with no print flaws or artifacting. Colors remained subdued throughout, but appeared accurately presented. A pan & scan 1.33:1 edition of the movie is also included here, and can be accessed via the main menu (both editions are housed on the same side of the dual-layer disc.)
SOUND: The film's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack mainly highlighted Mychael Danna's enjoyable score. Some minor sound effects were spread across the front speakers, but the surrounds were not given much to do here, understandably. The score sounded impressively rich and detailed, coming through with excellent warmth and clarity. Dialogue also seemed clean and clear, with no distortion or other issues.
EXTRAS: All we get are the teaser and theatrical trailers.
Final Thoughts: Overall, "Navity Story" will likely satisfy those seeking a wholesome (although it wouldn't be for the youngest viewers) tale. However, the picture's average performances and low-key feel keeps it from being a memorable retelling of the story. The DVD presentation offers adequate video quality, fine audio and very limited extras. Rent it.
The Film B-