By Tom Kapr
I’m not supposed to bash Christian-themed movies. I’m supposed to champion them. Declare them inspirational, categorize them “must-see,” form church groups to go see them at the theater to show moral support and help boost ticket sales and organize youth events when the DVD comes out. Growing up in the Bible-believing Christian church culture, that’s just what you did.
I’m still a Bible-believing Christian living in the church culture, and I love a good Christian-themed film. But The Nativity Story is just so… not good. I hate saying that, because the story of the birth of Jesus is endlessly fascinating, though you might not think so if this was your introduction.
The movie in a nutshell – Well, the plot is fairly well-known: The long-awaited Messiah is incarnated as a human when God immaculately conceives a child within the womb of a Jewish virgin named Mary (played by Keisha Castle-Hughes, who was something of a “flavor of the year” at the time), who is betrothed to a carpenter named Joseph. He does the noble thing by not publicly humiliating her, then does the faithful thing by trusting and obeying God and marrying her anyway. They travel to Bethlehem during the Roman census, where overcrowding forces Mary to give birth in a stable. They name the baby Jesus, because that is what God told them to do, because this baby would be the savior of mankind. Lowly shepherds, wise men from the East, donkeys and angels and all the Scriptural trimmings. It’s the story of Christmas.
The main problem is a strange one: every scene taken directly from Scripture is played out and filmed in the most cliché manner possible, and every line of dialogue spoken verbatim is delivered in such a stilted manner that you’d think you were watching a Christmas Eve skit at church; yet the film is at its strongest when it is taking dramatic license and filling in the narrative gaps. The movie just gets worse and worse as it goes along, until the uninspired ending (which is just pathetic considering this is supposed to be one of the defining events in history), which includes the traditional but historically inaccurate arrival of three wise men at the side of the manger. There is even a UFO light shining down from heaven when Jesus is born. The whole thing ends up feeling like a Hallmark Channel original production, which is a cryin’ shame when you think of all the historical, cultural, and geographical detail that went into it. Failure, writer Mike Rich and director Catherine Hardwicke.
The performance – This is not to say that The Nativity Story does not have a few things going for it. It has some acting pedigree in its favor including performances by Iranian thespians Shohreh Aghdashloo and Shaun Toub, as well as an affecting performance by Oscar Isaac as the noble but unsure Joseph. But the performance that sticks with me to this day, five years later, is that of Ciarán Hinds as King Herod.
Ciarán Hinds (pronounced keeran) is one of those actors most filmgoers would recognize by face but not know by name. He’s not what you’d call a movie star, but has had an impressive career on stage and in film and television, mostly as a character actor. He’s played Richard III with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Jane Austen’s Captain Wentworth in a well-done BBC production of Persuasion, and Julius Caesar in the HBO series Rome. He appeared in some of the best films of the past decade, including Road to Perdition, Munich, Amazing Grace, There Will Be Blood, and In Bruges. Just this past year he had short but memorable roles as a former Mossad agent in the brilliant thriller The Debt and as the reluctant hero Aberforth Dumbledore in the two-film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
But the performance that stands out the most for me is Herod. Hinds is so brooding and intense and downright scary as the paranoid and ruthless King Herod “the Great” that you have no problem believing he would have his own wife and sons murdered in order to keep his place on the throne, not to mention order the slaying of every infant boy in the Bethlehem area. The Christmas story in the Bible isn’t all joy to the world and silent night. It includes the bloody government-sanctioned massacre of babies. Herod “the Great” was a vicious ruler, and Hinds’ performance in The Nativity Story is appropriately, and memorably, menacing–and he does it almost entirely with his eyes and a handful of lines.
That this same man could endear himself both to lovers of Georgian prose as the romantic lead in a Jane Austen story and to legions of Harry Potter fans as a benevolent wizard is a testament to a truly great actor.
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