5th December: Nativity!

Image: Entertainment One

The Reel Time Christmas Movie Advent Calendar is exactly what it says on the tin: a classic festive countdown, except instead of chocolate behind the windows it’s my ramblings on a host of Christmas films. In true advent calendar style, films will not be announced in advance, but revealed at 6pm each day. Get involved by shouting abuse at me on Twitter and Facebook, or even just reading and sharing. I hope this can bring a little cheer at the end of a miserable year. Enjoy! 

Year: 2009

Director: Debbie Isitt

Writer: Debbie Isitt

Starring: Martin Freeman, Marc Wootton, Jason Watkins, Ashley Jensen, Pam Ferris

May contain spoilers.

After the movie-star gloss of The Holiday and the neat little suburbia (satirised or not) of Home Alone, there is something very satisfying about the slightly worse-lit, lower budget antics of Debbie Isitt’s Nativity!. I think because of the music and films that dominate our culture, the sights and feelings I associate with ‘Christmassy’ are very often American. The snow-covered houses and wide, tree-lined streets, the grossly decorated department stores, and all those songs and movies made in the States, are often what get me feeling all warm inside.

Seeing a British version of Christmas cheer is something more nostalgic and authentic. The structure and feel of a British primary school like the fictional St. Bernadette’s is so familiar that it is simultaneously less magical and more comforting to me. One look at those crinkly card borders lining every display in every school corridor and I’m transported back to my own nativity experience (I was one of two Angel Gabriels and cannot sing, if you must know).

Beyond the comforting nostalgia hit it will bring many British viewers, Nativity! is a happily enjoyable film. It is not an especially great one, but it is sweet and fun and reliable family viewing. Seriously, imagine watching Nativity! and not enjoying it, even a little. It is a Scrooge test I feel, not so much to weed out Christmas haters as child haters. If multiple montages of children being variously amusing and adorable is not your bag, then perhaps steer clear.

Nativity!’s plot could almost be guessed from the poster and title alone, and concerns the annual Christmas production at St. Bernadette’s Primary in Coventry. The show is to be presided over by grumpy, lovelorn teacher Mr. Maddens (Martin Freeman) and cheery, irresponsible teaching assistant Mr. Poppy (Marc Wootton). You’ll never guess what: Mr. Maddens and Mr. Poppy don’t get on! No way! But they become friends over the course of the film. What a twist!

Although the whole thing in both plot and tone feels very familiar and predictable, the way this basic outline (which also includes a misunderstanding involving Hollywood movie producers) is filled in is what makes the film entertaining. Freeman and Wootton are a good double-act, with the former doing Tim from The Office’s exasperation mixed with a healthy dose of genuine emotion. It’s the kind of performance that you sense Freeman could do in his sleep, so well-suited it is to him, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. The cast is rounded out by some charming children and a bunch of British TV comedy stars including Ashley Jensen and Ricky Tomlinson.

The chemistry between Freeman and Jensen (as Maddens’ ex-girlfriend Jennifer) has genuine feeling to it, allowing a relatively thin idea on the page to make for decent viewing – much like the whole film. I almost admire how little Isitt attempts to ‘elevate’ the material. There are no half-baked efforts to shoehorn in some ‘depth’ or introduce a tragic backstory behind Mr. Poppy’s exuberance. The film has its aims, however straightforward and familiar they may be, and achieves them well. For that, it should be praised as a fun, undemanding Christmas treat.

The final scenes, where the nativity itself takes place, deliver on all the heartfelt humour and emotional pay-offs the film had been gearing towards. It does go on a bit, making a few bland jokes and hitting the same beat about six times in 20 minutes, but it does the job. Nativity!, as a whole, does the job.

Andrew Young