“Joseph, please don’t hate me”
As one of those stories that so many of us learnt whilst very young, the tale of the Nativity occupies a near-unassailable position in the cultural consciousness and so it is unsurprising that it has received the odd televisual adaptation or two. But both versions that I watched this week suffered criminally from a po-faced seriousness, trying to create a literal interpretation of the Biblical story despite the ever-so-tiny possibility that it might not necessarily be based in deep realism…
The Nativity Story, the 2006 film version, written by Mike Rich and directed by Catherine Hardwicke, is particularly onerous, deadly serious in tone and mostly traditional in its storytelling, so that Keisha Castle-Hughes’ Mary unblinkingly accepts the arrival of the Angel Gabriel and the news that she’s gonna be expecting. Yet Hardwicke can’t resist a little of the Bella Swan stroppiness as Mary gets to complain (unrealistically) about her enforced betrothal to Joseph.
But with the three kings giving a painful comedy turn, glowering looks aplenty from Ciarán Hinds’ Herod and his bureaucrats and tax collectors, and Mary and Joseph ultimately being quite the wet blankets, it is a hard slog to get through. Not even the presence of my loved Shohreh Aghdashloo as a kindly Elizabeth could save it. Oddly enough, Tony Jordan’s 2010 miniseries The Nativity also featured a brilliant actress as Elizabeth, director Coky Giedroyc opting for the immeasurable talents of Frances Barber.
Spread over 4 episodes, this version has a lot more time to fill, and so subplots aplenty, but the most notable thing about the show is the oddities elsewhere in the casting. Neil Dudgeon and Claudie Blakley star as Mary’s parents – who knows how old Blakley’s Anna was supposed to be – and no amount of fake tan could really convince that this pair had given birth to Tatiana Maslany’s Mary. The production doesn’t really benefit from the multi-stranded approach though, despite an excellent turn from Andrew Buchan’s fully fleshed out Joseph.
Giving Al Weaver’s shepherd Thomas a back story of an ailing wife – Ruth Negga’s winsome Leah – and struggling with debt just felt like a distraction from anything significant; the Magi’s stargazing and then tussling with Herod’s men was laboured, and quite how they managed to use the Star of Bethlehem to navigate the narrow streets of the town I’m not quite sure…; and I’m pretty sure they must have had Twitter in Bethlehem as the speed with which everyone knew about Mary’s whoring ways was rather impressive.
It may seem beside the point to criticise dramatizations of the Nativity for not being realistic, but then this is the main problem with these versions as they both aim to place that story into a realistic context, despite its inherent farfetchedness, without grasping the sense of child-like wonder that has captivated so many for so long.