Two millennia ago, there was unrest in the land of Israel as King Herod (Ciarán Hinds), the monarch placed under the Roman rule, was disturbed by the threat that the prophecies as predicted in the scripture were to come true, and the new King of the Jews would be born. As Herod saw himself as the holder of that title, he took drastic action and decreed that the recently born male children in the area should be put to death... but were the prophecies correct? Had the Saviour been born? To answer that question, we had to go back a year and follow young Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes).
Since popular fiction's idea of a Christmas movie tended to mean more and more that it should include Santa Claus, and any mention of religion was left to church on the big day, it should have been refreshing that director Catherine Hardwicke (the woman who brought Twilight to the screen) opted to go back to where the whole celebration began. The approach she adopted, from Mike Rich's script, had taken its cue from the then-recent success of Mel Gibson's uber-religious Passion of the Christ in the hope it would cash in on the Christian moviegoing audience, except here instead of being as extreme as possible, realism was the order of the day.
So the cast were taught about how the characters they portrayed would have lived their lives, and the set design was as accurate as it could be given what was known about the era, with actors looking as if they had stepped out of the pages of the Bible. So far so good, yet as with so many of the faith-based entertainments the appeal was not likely to extend beyond the confines of those who actually had some investment in the first place, therefore if you knew and believed the story, you would appreciate it far more than those who were none too bothered one way or the other, or those spoilsports who were wont to point out how unhistorical much of the Biblical detail was.
There was no Roman census bringing citizens back to the place of their birth for a start, and if you had issues with troublesome facts such as that you were not going to get on with Dr Bashir from Deep Space Nine showing up as the Archangel Gabriel to tell Mary that she is now carrying the child of God thanks to the deity impregnating her. Hardwicke seemed interested in the issue of teenage pregnancy for a more modern take to make this relevant, but that was a mistake (never mind that the sixteen-year-old star fell pregnant at the time the movie was made), mainly because it broke the spell of the scripture and had you pondering why God thought it was such a good idea to act more like Zeus, his randier predecessor.
Obviously there was room for many interpretations of the old, old tale, and a Christmas card version could have looked somewhat shallow, but there was something to be said for keeping a measure of the magic of the season in the production, and there was some of that here. Just not enough: yes, there were regular updates from the Three Wise Men, looking as if they deserved their own movie really, and as it progressed they gave into the more traditional trappings with the Star of Bethlehem beaming benificiently down on the characters as the shepherds were assembled and so forth. The lead up to this was half-hearted moves towards examining the crisis of feelings Mary and Joseph (Oscar Isaac) must have been going through, but if they were going to go in that direction the story began to fall apart, hence the later reliance upon what every Nativity tale presented. The overwhelming problem was that everything here was largely sincere and respectful to the level of incredible boredom. Music by Mychael Danna.