Destined – and no doubt designed – to attract coachloads of the Midwestern pious, ‘The Nativity Story’ yearns to do a Mel Gibson at the box-office – but without the same blood, tears, pantomime Jews or anything else controversial. That said, director Catherine Hardwicke, a veteran of two movies about American teenagers, ‘Thirteen’ and ‘Lords of Dogtown’, strives to break with school-play conventions by stressing the human as well as spiritual side of the story of the immaculate conception and virgin birth. Hardwicke’s Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes, the lead from ‘Whale Rider’) is fully flesh and not a little concerned by the unexpected gift in her womb; her Joseph (Oscar Isaac), meanwhile, is rightly suspicious when his new wife, still a virgin, announces that she is carrying the Lord’s child. There are further hints of realism: Mary and Joseph find their trek across the desert hard-going and there’s even a birthing scene, with sweaty brows and groaning, although the camera doesn’t dare venture below Mary’s shoulders and Hardwicke stops at having Joseph grab Mary’s hand and yell ‘Push!’.
Still, the earnest, Christmas-card spin on the nativity wins out, and Hardwicke more serves her material than shapes it. You expect Charlton Heston to wander out from the shadows: there are shafts of light from the heavens; a murky and stodgy sense of time and place; and costumes straight from Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s video for ‘The Power of Love’. For all the director’s nods at realism, this is biblical reconstruction of the sort that will only fully engage those who can invest religious meaning in its narrative. For non-believers, it’s a bit of a snooze.