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CHRISTMAS: THE NATIVITY STORY

From the Dec. 22, 2006, Deseret News

If you're looking for a movie to see on Christmas Day — you know, after all the presents have been opened and the wrapping has been stashed, and the eggnog has dried up — and if you'd like to go for something that might remind you of what the holiday is really about, take in "The Nativity Story."

OK, it's not the greatest version ever filmed, and in some ways it's genuinely disappointing. But on the other hand, it's nice to see a biblical story in a movie theater again.

We don't see Bible stories at the movies much these days, and let's face it, those that have come in the wake of Mel Gibson's box-office juggernaut "The Passion of the Christ" have been less than stellar.

And while "The Nativity Story" is also less than stellar, it's better than most. And if you're not too picky about details (which I am), or if you want to send a message to Hollywood that we'd like more films of this kind (which I do), it may be worth your movie buck.

Adapted from the New Testament Gospels of Matthew and Luke, the film is earnest and reverent ... perhaps a little too much so ... and, of course, it tends to take liberties with the source material.

Admittedly, that's necessary to some degree, since the scriptural account is fairly skimpy. Hey, it takes dialogue and character interaction and story development to fill out a 90-minute movie.

Although you may want to ask why, at the end of the film, the wise men (played here largely for comic relief) show up immediately after the Savior's birth. That isn't the way it goes in the Bible, but that's the way it always is in the movies.

"The Nativity Story," however, has a couple of other problems that bothered me more, both clearly director choices.

The first is a troubling trend that has to do with the look of the film.

Ever since "Saving Private Ryan," more and more filmmakers have chosen to give their movies a washed-out look. It's not black and white, but almost ... it's gray, metallic and dull.

As a result, "The Nativity Story," seems to be cloudy all the time.

I've never been to the Holy Land but I assume the sun shines once in awhile, and that you can make out colors when that happens.

When Clint Eastwood made the same choice for "Flags of Our Fathers" (which, by the way, resembles "Saving Private Ryan" in more ways than one), it was probably to set the film's mood. And it does lend something of a somber air to the proceedings. (Although I kept asking myself, "Why didn't he just shoot it in black and white?")

In "The Nativity Story," director Catherine Hardwicke's decision to go that route seems all wrong.

In terms of tone, the story, while it has obvious elements of troubling drama, should first and foremost be a celebration, a story of great joy.

And it might help if there was a brightness instead of a darkness to at least some of the proceedings.

Which leads me to my second major complaint, the performance of Keisha Castle-Hughes as Mary.

Castle-Hughes was the young star of "Whale Rider," so I know she's capable of something more than jutting out her lower lip, taking on a sad countenance in her eyes and looking dour all the time.

It seems obvious that this was director Hardwicke's decision — and some of the other performances are similarly afflicted.

Even the angel Gabriel (Alexander Siddig) seems less than thrilled about the proceedings.

The actors who appear to be having the most fun here are Oscar Isaac as Joseph — and especially Shohreh Aghdashloo as Elizabeth, Mary's cousin, who is pregnant somewhat late in life.

Elizabeth seems to understand that a visit from an angel and the promise of a deliverer is a reason to be filled with hope, and her joyous faith at these perplexing events is downright contagious.

To be fair, the film does get better as it goes along. At the end, you may find that you've recaptured the real spirit of Christmas just in time.

You might even find yourself saying "Merry Christmas" instead of "Happy Holidays."