The early rumblings of the holiday season are always quite an ominous affair, like a long-slumbering monster emerging from hibernation. Every year the Christmas adverts come sooner, plaguing us with unremitting images of reindeers, crackers, mince pies and, of course, the Yuletide big daddy himself, Santa Claus. The fact that the traditional image of St. Nick as a jolly fat man with a bushy white beard and a fluffy red suit is due, in part, to a Coca Cola advertising campaign is an irony of deliciously acrid voracity.
Worst of all are the movies. No one genre strikes fear into the heart like the Christmas film, which are usually sappy, saccharine cinema of the highest order – or, even worse, Vince Vaughn vehicles. Who could forget the recent joys of Four Christmases and Fred Claus? That’s not to say all holiday season films are terrible. But for every It’s A Wonderful Life there’s a Jingle All The Way ready to drain your ever-decreasing supply of festive cheer and goodwill to all men.
Where Nativity differs from some of the most cloying of Christmas movies is that it’s really not very Christmassy. Apart from the obvious subject matter – a primary school production of the nativity story – and a few brief shots of residential streets groaning under the weight of a mass plumage of tacky Crimbo decorations, there’s very little to let us know it’s Christmas time at all.
No snowball fights, no sledging (no snow at all, in fact), no roaring log fires, no carol singers. There’s not even a measly slice of cake in sight. It really doesn’t look very cold outside, either.
Perhaps this is a comment on the anticlimactic nature of Christmas Day, which is, more often than not, a damp, grey squib. Or maybe it’s because the film is an improvised, micro-budget British comedy that uses Christmas as one giant MacGuffin. And, most shockingly of all, is actually warm and touching enough to melt even the most frozen-hearted of Grinches.
Martin Freeman (The Office, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy) stars as Mr Maddens, a failed actor who has given up treading the boards for teaching the young ‘uns at a small primary school in Coventry, St Bernadette’s. He’s your classic Christmas-hating Scrooge-type, because his girlfriend Jennifer (Ashley Jensen, Extras) left him high and dry under the mistletoe five years ago to pursue a career as a Hollywood producer.
Despite his theatrical training, Mr Maddens refuses to have anything to do with the school’s nativity production – his last attempted received the damning verdict of ‘minus two stars’ from Alan Carr’s creepy local hack – until St Bernadette’s headmistress (Pam Ferris, Matilda) forcibly passes him the proverbial baton.
To help Freeman with the production, Ferris employees a classroom assistant, the perennial man-child Mr Poppy (Marc Wootton), who seems more interested in mucking around in the playground than teaching times tables or how to conjugate a verb.
Then, while out shopping for a Christmas tree, Freeman bumps into his old rival, Gordon Shakespeare (Jason Watkins), who also happens to be the drama teacher at Coventry’s posh elementary school up the road, and starts mouthing off about how Jennifer is flying back from LA to produce an adaptation of St Bernadette’s show for the big screen.
Unable to contain his excitement, Poppy soon lets slip and suddenly the whole town’s eyes are on Freeman and his nativity extravaganza – leaving Freeman as stuffed as a turkey on Christmas morning.
The obvious moral here is about how lies only lead to no good, plus a bit of appreciating what you have (everybody’s special in their own way etc…), and in that respect Nativity follows the classic Christmas story model. But to director Debbie Isitt’s credit this is never laid on overly thick. There’s no magical redemption or revelatory changing of ways, just a sober realisation that perhaps things ain’t so bad after all.
Freeman and Wootton generate a great rapport, establishing a perfect straight man, funny man double act, with Wootton’s goofball performance a scene-stealer (think Will Ferrell in Elf). But the real stars of Nativity are the children themselves. The audition processes is, undoubtedly, the film’s highlight, in a Kids Do The Funniest Things/Britain’s Got Talent hybrid way.
As touched upon before, Nativity is completely improvised, which goes a long way to explaining some of the more off beat moments. Isitt had over one-hundred-and-twenty hours of footage with which to sculpt her narrative, and there are some genuine moments of off-the-cuff comedy gold. The humour is adult enough to tickle the grown ups (without ever getting rude; the film is a U certificate), but with plenty of slapstick.
However, in an age of Shreks and Finding Nemos, the kids themselves might well be underwhelmed by the low key storyline and lack of pizzazz. The hope is for them to relate to the pupils of St Bernadette’s, but the feeling remains that, rather ironically, this is a children’s film that mum and dad will enjoy far more than their little ‘uns.
Personally, I found Nativity one of the most enjoyable comedies of 2009, and certainly the best Christmas films in years, despite (or perhaps because of) its lack of festive trimmings. But, much like a tree with no presents underneath, I do think it might lack the wow factor for kids.