The Nativity makes its American debut today on BBC America at 1 p.m. Eastern.
When The Nativity debuted in the United Kingdom in 2010, it was greeted with a surprising degree of controversy for a fairly straightforward retelling of the Christmas story. Now, the controversy that swirled around the series—which aired over four days in four parts in the U.K. but will be airing in one two-hour chunk here—was, by and large, inaccurate. The accusations leveled against the program said that it implied that Mary was a prostitute (and, therefore, Jesus was the son of some client of hers, presumably), but, really, The Nativity is quite clear about Jesus’ divine origins. It has the angel Gabriel and everything. No, what those who disliked the program objected to were a series of scenes where people around Mary suggested she must have gotten knocked up by some other guy, she must have been whoring around. And of course they would think that! Everybody in the audience knows otherwise, but for a random citizen of Galilee, the appearance of a teenage girl who says she’s pregnant by God would probably be greeted with an eye roll at best.
At the same time, though, what these unhappy viewers might have been responding to is the way that The Nativity, reverent though it is, takes the whole story and brings it back down to Earth. It’s not clear if this is a directorial and screenwriting choice, or if it came down to not having enough budget to make everything properly majestic. But this is the only adaptation of the story you’ll ever see where Gabriel doesn’t fly around in the sky and, instead, pretty much just hops in from offstage left to tell Mary or the shepherds what’s up. The cumulative effect is to take a story nearly every viewer will have become inured to after years of living in Western culture and place it in a new, more human context. This is a series about what happens when a regular person finds their life unexpectedly intersecting with God’s and what happens when everything proceeds at a right angle after that.
Here’s the thing about the Christmas story, though: There’s not a lot of inherent drama in it. A girl who’s engaged to be married finds out that she’s going to have the Messiah, and then the next few passages gloss over the bit where everybody’s stunned by this virgin being pregnant and get straight to the parts where Jesus is born. This creates the story nearly everybody is familiar with, with the shepherds and the Wise Men and the angels. But there’s no drama in that. There’s just a bunch of people being told what they have to do, then basically doing it. To place drama in this will require invention, which is why there are so few straightforward adaptations of this story, and so many adaptations of Christ’s Passion, which is at least roiling with drama.
By and large, The Nativity works because it places its invention in the category of “How would real people respond to being told these incredible things?” There’s some very silly business about the magi trying to avoid King Herod’s scouts and launching a basic subterfuge to do so, but for the most part, this is about two kids who get engaged, meet, spend a good while falling in love, then discover they’re going to be the parents to the son of God. The bulk of The Nativity takes place before Jesus is born—really, the shepherds and magi part takes up about five minutes—so the whole thing becomes a very unconventional romance, one that mostly follows the Biblical account—the exact timing of when Joseph has his Gabriel dream is shuffled just a bit—but also one that does its best to suggest maybe Joseph and Mary won’t end up together. It’s surprisingly effective.
There’s some weirdness in the early going. The whole thing has strange overtones of modern romantic couplings, with Joseph going over to Mary’s place to meet her parents, and the discussion proceeding much as it would when a watchful father asks probing questions of his daughter’s prom date in modern America (if said prom date was building a house to live in at that very moment, of course), and there’s more of an emphasis on romantic love throughout the program than there likely would have been at the time. (It seems hard to believe that anybody would have cared all that much if Mary fell in love with Joseph over the course of their marriage, but everybody in this program at least feints toward being very concerned about this particular point.) Now, granted, making a Christmas movie that’s all about women in New Testament times being a commodity probably would have been a downer—and the movie at least hints at this in a scene where Mary’s father begs Joseph not to ruin his family—but the whole thing more gives the impression of being heavily researched than it actually attempts to delve into what it might have been like to live in the real Galilee of the time.
Once the movie gets into the emotional fallout from the miraculous pregnancy, though, it becomes a kind of low-key wonder, a story that really seriously questions whether the love between two people could survive God’s intrusion. Where the story doesn’t bother coming up with something naturalistic on a factual level, it does work to be as naturalistic as it can possibly be on an emotional level. Joseph gets well and truly angry when he sees his intended with a baby bump. Mary finds herself astonished time and again—certain of what Gabriel told her but also fairly certain that nobody else will believe her. None of this would work without actors up to the task, but the young players Andrew Buchan and Tatiana Maslany, especially, are both terrific. It’d be easy to make these kids saints—Mary, in particular, attends religious services daily—but Buchan and Maslany find the human heart beneath the story.
The cast around the two kids is filled with ringers, and that ends up working very well. There’s no good reason for the great actor Peter Capaldi to be playing Balthasar, since it’s rather a thankless part, but he brings a sense of quiet dignity to a man who travels 1,000 miles because of something he’s read in the stars. Similarly, the Irish actor John Lynch offers a kind of quiet joy to Gabriel that’s surprisingly transfixing, and his accent, slightly different from everybody else’s, is enough to give him the sense of the otherworldly that might be provided in larger-budget productions via a set of CGI wings. As Joachim, Mary’s father, Neil Dudgeon takes a part that could have easily descended into “sitcom dad of the late B.C.” and makes him an immensely caring man.
The most fundamental thing The Nativity does is restore the wonder to the Christmas story. It’s easy to sit through the latest pageant and miss the forest for the trees because the story is so familiar. The pieces of it have all been so deeply ingrained in the minds of anybody who grew up in the West that even those who aren’t Christians have at least a passing familiarity with the thing. And that familiarity can breed shoulder shrugging and eye rolling. So what if there was a holy baby? So what? The Nativity works because it asks you to take all of this seriously, even if you don’t believe in it. Even if this is just an elaborate story cooked up by somebody 2,000 years ago, it’s still a story full of normal people who find themselves confronted with that which is unknowable, then have to move on with everyday life. There’s a moment late in the movie when the people of Bethlehem stare up into the sky at a magnificent star, in wonder, and it’s not hard to be right there with them. What if this was me? The Nativity wants viewers to ask. What would I do?