Rather like the donkey that carried the pregnant Virgin Mary to Bethlehem, director Catherine Hardwicke struggles under the weight of The Nativity Story. The crackling energy of her debut feature Thirteen is replaced by a plodding and slavish account of the birth of Jesus Christ. Following in that vein, Keisha Castle-Hughes (who lit up the screen with infectious, childlike zeal in Whale Rider) seems to base her portrayal of the Madonna on a po-faced Byzantine icon.
Mary is just a teenager when she is visited by The Angel Gabriel (Alexander Siddig), but apart from her sullen countenance, there is little feeling of it. The appearance of a celestial being is greeted with as much wonderment as sunny weather after a forecast of rain. Then, her belly begins to swell... Unfortunately, Mary is betrothed to Joseph (Oscar Isaac) and risks being stoned to death, but these are just minor bumps in the journey.
"A LIVE-ACTION ADVENT CALENDAR"
Hardwicke doesn't dare linger on moments where Mary might've had doubts or misgivings about 'the prophecy', instead treating her experience as a series of bullet points. In place of human beings we're presented with cardboard cutouts in a live-action advent calendar. Occasionally, Ciarán Hinds pops up as King Herod - seeking to eliminate the threat to his rule - but Hardwicke fails to build a genuine sense of peril or, more crucially, awe. In short, too much is taken for granted. Devoted Christians may approve of the instructional value, but most will probably find their local school production a lot more compelling.