Nativity accounts don’t come any better.
Producer/ Distributor: Red Planet/ 2Entertain
Time: 113 minutes
Regions: 2, 4.
Having only caught parts of this mini-series when the BBC put it out last Christmas, I had thought it a little thin, but seeing the seamless whole now leaves me thinking that it is one of the best – if not the best – re-telling of the nativity story dramatised so far.
Tony Jordan is the man behind Life on Mars and here he again manages to tell a credible, moving and compelling human story, while conveying the cosmic scale of its setting.
With echoes of Hardy’s portentous opening scene in Mayor of Casterbridge, Jordan starts the narrative as Mary and Joseph near Bethlehem, hardly speaking to each other, and Mary recalls how she got here in flashback. In doing so, Jordan brings out the vital cultural aspects of the events that can get missed when reading the biblical accounts only from our 21st century perspective. He leaves the viewer in no doubt as to the shame that Mary was bringing on all her family.
He does the same thing with the shepherds, focussing on one in particular to convey the struggles that such poor people had to survive, and bringing out the impact of the incarnation for the impoverished and hopeless. He shows that God had not forgotten them.
By contrast, the gospel is shown to be for the whole world as persevering Magi travel a thousand miles to find the Christ. Scientists can now re-create views of the sky from any time and place and Jordan uses what we know of the alignment of Jupiter, Saturn and Regulus at that time, viewing it sometimes from space – a memorable, clever and apposite device.
The Magi also draw out some of the best set-piece landscape shots, including bright, exotic riverside action as they prepare, and imposing lunar bleakness as they near Jerusalem.
Occasionally, Jordan includes language that seems forced and the Magi are given (what I imagine to be) an unlikely knowledge of Jewish culture, but this is dwarfed by his achievements here. He clearly delights in portraying everyday family life in Palestine as much as he enjoys playing with light and shade as the paranoid Herod clings to power.
I was initially disppointed that there were no extras, other than sub-titles, but the focus is simply on the story and extras may well have distracted from that.
Some very fine acting helps to draw the viewer into the story. We may know how it ends, but that does not stop us from feeling the palpable tensions along the way – or from getting teary-eyed at the stable. This superbly-judged account is deservedly winning awards from England to Canada.