Given how many people have taken part in a nativity play, it seems strange that professional actors so rarely get the chance. The 2006 film The Nativity Story was the first time an English language film on the subject had been cinemas since 1914. Television has proved a more popular medium with a couple of US TV movies from the 1970s and 2007’s Liverpool Nativity among them. Nevertheless, a decent, recent, historical attempt at explaining the origins of our culture’s most widely celebrated seasonal festival is long overdue.
Whilst The Nativity isn’t flawless it certainly goes a long way to addressing the imbalance. Tony Jordan’s script skilfully blends together the two differing accounts from the gospels of Matthew and Luke, weaving in scientific theory and cultural exposition with great ease without ever being ruled by them. Take for example the trouble that Mary and Joseph have finding accommodation in Bethlehem despite it being the town his family is from. It somehow manages to answer queries such as this, whilst simultaneously nodding to some of the now cherished traditions that have grown up around the text.
The biggest problem with the programme is that while Jordan’s experience in writing a soap opera gives it a realistic ordinariness, things occasionally feel a little bit twee. This is primarily the case in the opening episode where Joseph and Mary spend a little too long during their betrothal party starring gooily into one another’s eyes. That said, it certainly improves thereafter.
This may in part be due to the actors. Andrew Buchan’s turn as Joseph is overall very good, but I only bought into his character once Mary had revealed she was pregnant. From there he undergoes an emotional journey which mirrors his physical journey, drawn towards his destiny step by step, one small act of goodness at a time. In contrast Mary (Tatiana Maslany) spends most of the series trying to formulate exactly what it is that she is involved in, only for all the pieces to drop into place once Jesus is born.
If the first episode is the weakest, then the last is certainly the strongest. It’s here we see Jordan pulling together the film’s three main threads into a quite moving finale. Wisely Herod’s slaughter of the innocents is excluded which means that the story’s climax is Jesus’ birth and the arrival of the shepherds and the magi. Jordan has talked about this being a “love story” (a genre of which I must say I’m not hugely appreciative) but making this aspect of the story culminate at the same time as the more important story does underlines the latter’s importance. God’s son has come to Earth.
At its heart The Nativity is a very human take on the story. When Gabriel appears to Mary it’s very low-key. There’s no dazzling light, indeed as he appears to Mary outside, and during the night, it leaves open the slight possibilities that this might not be an angel at all or that she may only be dreaming. Joseph’s encounter is stripped down even further. Gabriel remains off-screen, so we only hear about what has happened because Joseph tells us next morning. This is, for me, is actually one of the best and most inventive parts of the series, holding very closely to the biblical text, and yet offering a very fresh interpretation of it that seems very plausible in such a sceptical age.
The human emphasis on the story is apparent in other ways. The only parts of the gospel accounts to be excluded are the announcement of John’s birth, the encounters with Simeon and Anna, and the songs of Mary and Zechariah. Then there’s the birth scene itself which breaks from certain traditions in order to deliver a fairly realistic portrayal of the child’s birth. Of all the attempts to depict the moment that Christ came into the world this is definitely the most plausible. And added into this mix are the back stories of the Magi and one of the shepherds.
Overall, I think this is probably my favourite portrayal of these events on film. Whilst it doesn’t quite match up to the best aspects of The Nativity Story, it certainly stays well above that film’s worst. The Nativity Story never quite knew what it wanted to be. This production is much more sure footed, and, as a result it’s more consistent. Jordan and director Coky Giedroyc are content to take their time over the first few episodes to build their characters, setting up very effective cliff hangers at the end of each episode in an attempt to pull the audience back the following night. Those who take the bait will find it well worth the wait.
Part 1 of The Nativity airs tonight at 7pm on BBC1, with parts 2-4 showing from Tuesday to Thursday at the same time