While we've seen many low-budget Nativity Story movies produced by various religious groups, there hasn't really been a big-budget Hollywood production done on the subject. New Line Cinema remedied that it 2006 with a well-funded tale of Jesus' birth and the dangers surrounding it.
Admittedly, 'The Nativity Story' is preaching to the converted. However, even if you don't believe in its tenants or the stories it's telling, it's still a nicely constructed movie, with fine acting, and great production values.
Following along with the Biblical storyline, 'The Nativity Story' begins as we watch the jealous King Herod (Ciarán Hinds) proclaim the slaughter of Bethlehem's population of baby boys. Herod fears that the prophecy of a king rising up in his kingdom will come true and he will do anything to hold on to his supreme power over the city of Jerusalem and its surrounding territories.
Then we flashback to a year earlier. A young woman named Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) works the land with her family. They're a humble bunch. Not much money or food. They're steeped in tradition though, which leads to Mary being more or less forced to marry Joseph (Oscar Isaac). Mary isn't too pleased with her parent's decision, but she must obey.
Mike Rich's ('Secretariat') screenplay does a great, if apocryphal, job filling in the gaps left open by the Bible. The Bible's story is pretty straight forward. A tale of a young virgin who gives birth to the Son of God. The story is known the world over. However, what we don't get from the Bible is what Mary was feeling on her long journey to Bethlehem. We don't get to understand the true frustration of Joseph when he found out Mary was pregnant and he wasn't the father. The way Rich's script fills in those gaps, with small, human moments, is what makes the movie enjoyable and emotional.
During the movie we follow three stories: Mary and Joseph as they journey to Bethlehem for the great census; King Herod's dastardly plots to keep his power and suppress his subjects; and the journey of three wise Magi from the East as they follow the new star. The latter is the movie's pitfall.
The three wise men are given the comedic relief portion of the movie. While Joseph and Mary struggle on their hundred mile journey, and while Herod sulks in his palace thinking of what atrocities he can commit next, the wise men laugh and joke as they cross deserts. Most of the comedy they're given feels forcibly shoehorned into an otherwise deadly serious movie.
What gives the movie an added dimension is the subtle way it portrays seminal events. Take for instance the actual birth of Jesus. It's a story we've heard over and over, but somehow director Catharine Hardwicke ('Twilight') is able to add something special. There's a quiet dignity to the way she depicts the events of that holy night. It's a special moment because it doesn't need to be overly grandiose.
This is certainly a movie for Christians, although I think anyone might be able to enjoy it. First and foremost it's a movie and a decent one at that. It doesn't come across as corny or overly heavy-handed like many religious-themed movies tend to do. It simply tells a story that every knows by reading between the Biblical lines.
Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This is a New Line Cinema/Warner Bros. release. It's coming out just in time for Easter with a Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack. The discs are packaged in a standard keepcase. It's labeled as a Region A release.
Warner's 1080p presentation offers extremely nice detail and a wonderfully lush visual representation of ancient Jerusalem. Hardwicke, along with her cinematographer Elliot Davis, have crafted a richly detailed image that showcases the picturesque beauty of the Middle East.
Colors have been noticeably altered and desaturated in post-production. Many of the scenes with Mary and Joseph appear to be sucked of color, leaving behind a dreary, bleak look. This is intentional, because in many ways, their lives were dreary and bleak. I don't have a problem with the color manipulation at all. It accurately reflects not only the director's vision, but the feelings of the characters on screen.
That's not to say that there isn't any color though. The Greenery of fields and palm trees still manages to shine through. Blue skies are a little grayer than normal, but it gives it a cool effect. Edges are sharp. Textures, like the woven fabric of clothing and the coarse hides of camels are perfectly visible. Even the dunes of sands crossed by the wise men looked to have lifelike textural detail. I didn't notice any instances of banding, crushing, or any other annoying compression anomalies. Fans of the movie will be elated with the way it looks on Blu-ray.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is a direct sort of audio mix. There aren't a lot of bells and whistles here. The movie doesn't ask for a lot of spectacular audio effects so the mix obliges. Instead, like the movie, the mix focuses on the subtle.
Dialogue is clear, but felt to be mixed a little low compared to the music and other sound effects. At times it was a tad tough to hear whispered or hushed dialogue. Surround sound doesn't have much effect here. As Herod tours his palace construction voices and grunts of workers can be heard coming from the rear speakers. The busy streets of Jerusalem provide for some nice sounding ambience. However, that's about as good as it gets. For the most part this is a front-heavy audio presentation.
It's nice to get a more human view of the Biblical accounts. I thought that Rich and Hardwicke performed admirably here, especially with themes and stories that are controversial and beloved at the same time. It's a tricky line to balance. The video looks great and the audio is satisfying. The special features are pretty sparse though. In any case 'The Nativity Story' is recommended viewing this Easter season.