'Nativity Story' — The book was better 

After the runaway success of Mel Gibson’s "Passion of the Christ," the return of the biblical epic was foretold. Now comes the first in what promises to be a long line of hopefuls aimed at mining the religious bonanza.

"The Nativity Story," which recounts the joyous birth of Christ rather than his bloody last days, is a lavishly constructed production, with authentic-looking sets and striking cinematography worthy of what has been called "The Greatest Story Ever Told." In other ways, it fails to live up to the billing.

The story should be familiar even to those with the feeblest knowledge of the New Testament.

Early on, the Angel Gabriel (Alexander Siddig) visits young Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) and informs her that she will give birth to Jesus, the immaculately conceived son of God. She takes the news with remarkable equanimity and travels to visit her elderly cousin Elizabeth (Shohreh Aghdashloo), whose own improbable pregnancy (with Jesus’ eventual disciple, John the Baptist) has also been prophesied. Elizabeth admits she has shared Mary’s vision, and the women giddily count their blessings.

There’s the sticky matter of public perception, though. It’s hard enough for Mary to explain a divine conception to her parents, much less her bewildered fiancé, Joseph (Oscar Isaac). She is already less than thrilled by the prospect of an arranged union with a virtual stranger — Joseph is a fellow Nazarene who has bartered for her hand in marriage — but after he unexpectedly stands by her, they form a close bond.

Together, they travel to Bethlehem, a grueling trek forced by King Herod, who believes his rule will be threatened by the rumored coming of a savior from the land of David. Mary and Joseph avoid capture, and the rest, the Bible tells us, is history.

Directed by Catherine Hardwicke, whose previous films include "Thirteen" and "Lords of Dogtown," "The Nativity Story" wisely focuses on the delicate relationship between Mary and Joseph, who are presented not as saintly icons but as a scared, confused young couple. In that sense, the movie is rooted in human drama that supersedes the religious context of the material.

But it is drama with little bite. The story remains doggedly faithful to its inspiration, which will undoubtedly please some, but it lacks suspense and, too often, emotional gravity.

Perhaps that comes with the territory. Although "The Nativity Story" is (almost unbelievably) the first feature-length treatment of Christ’s birth, it covers ground that will be familiar to anyone with even the most modest religious awareness.

With a sharp enough script, that wouldn’t be a problem, but Mike Rich’s dialogue is banal and unimaginative when he strays from biblical prose.

Castle-Hughes, whose performance in "Whale Rider" was nothing less than a revelation, is given the almost thankless task of grimacing her way through Mary’s journey toward motherhood, while Isaac solemnly observes.

Meanwhile, the Three Wise Men have nothing better to do than praise each other’s wisdom — literally — and argue about who gets to carry the frankincense.

The Nativity Story **

Starring Keisha Castle-Hughes, Oscar Isaac, Hiam Abbass, Shaun Toub, Shohreh Aghdashloo

Written by Mike Rich

Directed by Catherine Hardwicke

Rated PG

Running time 1 hour, 41 minutes

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