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Friday, December 1, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

"The Nativity Story": Story of Christ's birth is a little too calm

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 2.5 stars


Showtimes and trailer

"The Nativity Story," with Keisha Castle-Hughes, Oscar Isaac, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Hiam Abbass, Shaun Toub, Alexander Siddig, Said Amadis, Ciarn Hinds. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke, from a screenplay by Mike Rich. 102 minutes. Rated PG for some violent content. Several theaters.

It's hard to imagine much "Passion of the Christ"-style controversy swirling around "The Nativity Story," Catherine Hardwicke's gentle depiction of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. Prettily filmed, with silver-blue light and soaring music (in which you can hear hints of Christmas carols), it's a careful, respectful retelling of a story familiar to many. And yet, by being so careful and familiar, it's almost lifeless. Hardwicke and screenwriter Mike Rich don't find a way to energize the material; instead, they're almost too reverent. The movie never rises beyond a certain calm competence — its subject matter is inspirational, but the filmmaking often is uninspired.

The story, familiar from countless church readings and Sunday-school pageants, here is carefully drawn out to feature-film length. We meet teenage Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) and her poverty-stricken family in the town of Nazareth and witness her betrothal to the young carpenter Joseph (Oscar Isaac), which she accepts even though she does not love him. From there, all is familiar: the visit of the angel Gabriel, the pregnancy, the journey to Bethlehem, the birth in a stable, the baby in a manger, the Wise Men, the glorious star.

Castle-Hughes, Oscar-nominated in 2004 for "Whale Rider" (a film she made when only 11 years old), gives an understated performance; so much so that it's difficult to discern anything about Mary other than her obedience and quiet — very quiet — strength. Perhaps she's hampered by the accent work; perhaps, in adolescence, acting seems less natural than before; perhaps she's simply overwhelmed by the iconic power of the character she's playing.

In "Whale Rider," Castle-Hughes had a toughness and direct gaze that jumped off the screen. Here, she's softer and less distinct. Her face registers little emotion, instead looking resigned and solemnly serene. By contrast, the husky-voiced, almost wry warmth of Shohreh Aghdashloo as Mary's older cousin Elizabeth (mother of John the Baptist) comes as a welcome ray of light. (The Wise Men, who are given a bit of comic business, seem a misfire; you can't help but think of "Life of Brian.")

Mary and Joseph's arduous travels to Bethlehem, assisted only by a weakening donkey, make up much of the last third of the film, as they traverse deserts, mountains and rivers on the 100-mile journey. You feel their exhaustion, but it seems to carry too much of the film's weight. The scene in the stable is beautifully staged, with blue light streaming down on the angelic child; it's a lovely moment, particularly as we see Mary's parents, Elizabeth and other far-off characters caught up in the magic of the star. "The Nativity Story" has a quiet sincerity to it that's sometimes quite moving, and sometimes just too quiet.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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