Story Highlights• "Nativity Story" based on New Testament tale of Jesus' birth
• Movie stars "Whale Rider" actress as the Virgin Mary
• CNN reviewer says movie well made, but dull
By Tom Charity
Special to CNN
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(CNN) -- Low-budget Christian cinema has been quietly racking up small but significant profits over the last few years without troubling the mainstream media, but thanks to "The Passion of the Christ," bigger studios are weighing in.
"The Nativity Story" is a major release (from New Line, like CNN a unit of Time Warner), and boasts the kind of production values only money can buy. Discreetly ecumenical in thrust, it's a reverent, orthodox movie aimed at churchgoers across the spectrum.
A little too reverent, perhaps. It takes the first chapter in the Greatest Story Ever Told and turns it into a mild yarn.
Drawing on the gospels of Matthew and Luke, screenwriter Mike Rich takes no liberties with Scripture, though there are occasional concessions to contemporary sensibilities. Instructed that she is to be married to Joseph, Mary worries that she is not in love with him.
Director Catherine Hardwicke's two previous films, "Thirteen" and "Lords of Dogtown," both centered on troubled teens, and at a pinch you could lump "The Nativity Story" in with them.
Hardwicke angles for historical authenticity, and convincingly reproduces life in Judea 2007 years ago. (The production was largely based in Matera, the same Italian town used in "The Passion of the Christ.") We are treated to scenes of Nazarene farming, food preparation and religious instruction that have the faint mustiness of an old National Geographic about them.
The casting approximates ethnic realities (at least, you won't find Jeffrey Hunter or Max von Sydow here, though Belfast-born Ciaran Hinds is an old-school scheming Herod). Whether by accident or design, most of the Jews are played by actors of Persian or Arabic descent, including Shohreh Aghdashloo, as Mary's cousin Mary, Shaun Toub as Mary's father and Alexander Siddig as Gabriel.
The Virgin Mary herself is played with earnest fortitude by the Maori actress Keisha Castle-Hughes, who seems to have surrendered most of the spontaneity and joy that made her the youngest-ever best actress nominee for "Whale Rider" a few years back. Her performance hits one note, over and over.(Watch when the unwed 16-year-old actress revealed her off-screen pregnancy )
However, Guatemalan-born Oscar Isaac is a real find as Joseph, hinting at pent-up anger, humiliation and doubt beneath the character's fundamental integrity. He's a markedly younger Joseph than we're used to seeing, and his crisis is the meatiest drama in the story (except perhaps for Herod's infamy).
"The Nativity Story" is a shade more sensitive to the dilemmas presented by a virgin pregnancy in a strictly religious society than previous incarnations of the story -- when she returns home Mary is under threat of stoning -- but the film's scrupulous, rather plodding treatment only exacerbates the tale's familiarity. It's a relief whenever the magi are on screen, just for the very mild comic interplay they allow.
Of course there is nothing inherently wrong with preaching to the converted -- secular Hollywood does it all the time. But I confess I wish the movie had some of the passion of "The Passion of the Christ." For all that film's bloody excess, at least it communicated Mel Gibson's absolute need to make it.
Hardwicke and Rich have taken the safer road and played it by the book, but they never once risk putting their audience's beliefs to the test.
"The Nativity Story" is rated PG and runs 101 minutes.
What did Entertainment Weekly think? Read the review here.
Joseph (Oscar Isaac) and Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) ponder their future in "The Nativity Story."
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