Jean Kerr once wrote of school Christmas pageant with a moving depiction of the nativity that consisted of two young children crossing a bare stage. They stopped briefly. Joseph said, “Mary, ’tis a cold, cold night.” “‘Tis,” she replied. And they walked on.
Anyone who wants to try to tell the story of the birth of Jesus faces a daunting challenge. The two advantages of the version Kerr described were that it immediately captured the goodwill of the audience by casting not only children, but children of their community, and that its pared-down simplicity let the audience project their own ideas and feelings about the story onto what they saw.
This sincere and respectful version tries to do what it can with a different set of tools, and it admirably attempts to meet the needs of those who will come to it, whether they are looking for worship, for history, or for narrative. It is more successful in the first category than the other two.
Director Catherine Hardwicke’s two great strengths are in having the location help to tell the story (she was originally a production designer) and a sensitivity to the portrayal of teenagers (her two previous films as director are thirteen and The Lords of Dogtown). So here she makes good use of the settings (Italy and Morocco standing in for Biblical locations) and makes its young central figures very appealing. Whale Rider’s Keisha Castle-Hughes has a shy but dignified and resolute air. She glows believably as the very young woman who is selected as the mother of Jesus. And newcomer Oliver Isaac effectively conveys tenderness, doubt, courage, and transcendence as Joseph.
It is a daunting challenge to try to make icons into dramatic characters who feel human enough to be real but heroic enough to fit our notions of greatness. The movie’s commitment to reverence gives it a certain stiffness, as though it is an animatronics display, and the international cast does not always mesh into a consistent ensemble. Those who are already intimately familiar with the story are most likely to be satisfied, but those who are not may be confused at who the characters are and how they come together. An attempt at making the three kings into comic relief falters. But there are moments, as the star guides the characters on the journey to Bethlehem, when audiences may get that same feeling Kerr had in watching the scuffed stage at her children’s school, or when the harmonies of carols play as that star seems to shine brighter in the sky.
Parents should know that in a low-key way this movie raises the question of whether Joseph believes Mary’s story of the virgin birth. There is discussion of persecution and murder, including murder of babies.
Families who see this movie should talk about how it fits with their ideas of the story. Why is the part of the story about the three kings important? What does the star signify? Why was Jesus born in a stable? They may want to talk about their favorite Christmas carols and how those songs and hymns pay tribute to different parts of this story.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the Italian film, The Gospel According to St. Matthew and the The Gospel of John. My interview with Oscar Isaac, who plays Joseph, is here. And my interview with director Catherine Hardwicke is here.