No cozy Christmas pageant, here the hard-grit life of a persecuted people is solidly and at times forcefully depicted. But, though it can be found at times in a flicker of feeling in vibrant faces, the inner core of belief in the hope of the coming of a Messiah that will save them and all mankind doesn't pack much power — it's actually at its weakest when pronounced in the visual appearance of a rather flimsy Angel Gabriel.
The most moving parts of the film are the scenes with the heavily pregnant Mary, the dutiful Joseph and the hard-working donkey on the long trek to Bethlehem. The growing affection between the couple, and their respect for the animal which bears the burden of their journey, are filled with sweetness, an aching sense of a true decency and the faith that mankind can be good. Much of that has to do with the casting of Keisha-Castle-Hughes as Mary, a role she invests with quiet dignity, remarkable maturity and stunningly unselfconscious beauty. Oscar Isaac as Joseph picks up admirably on these best moments of the script, so that love and at least that faint hope of peace is felt.
But for most of the movie there is little of that — instead, there is violence, poverty, evil, fear, a very tensely wrought Herod (Ciaran Hinds), some rather campy Wise Men and lots of barren landscape and dust. Director Catherine Hardwicke capitalizes whenever possible on the visual pluses: the scenery is very striking; the costumes and sets, though a bit theatrical, imaginatively created; and the faces of many in her international cast well worth the lingering gaze of the camera — Castle-Hughes' most of all.
Distributor: New Line
Cast: Keisha Castle-Hughes, Oscar Isaac, Hiam Abbass, Shaun Toub, Ciaran Hinds and Shohreh Aghdashloo
Director: Catherine Hardwicke
Screenwriter: Mike Rich
Producer: Wyck Godfrey and Marty Bowen
Rating: PG for some violent content
Running time: 102 min.
Release date: December 1, 2006