Writer/ Director Debbie Isitt’s “Nativity!” is a bit of a curiosity. Although largely scripted, some of the scenes were improvised (an approach which was expanded in the sequel), which lends it a slightly meta amateur feel.
Paul Maddens (Martin Freeman), a frustrated actor turned resentful primary school teacher, is tasked with producing his school’s Nativity play, despite his vocal dislike of Christmas. In competition with the local private school, the pressure is on to deliver the best show ever. To assist him, the headmistress Mrs Bevans (Pam Ferris) assigns a new classroom assistant – Mr Poppy (Marc Wootton) but he turns out to be harder to manage than the class full of children. As his rival Nativity producer (Jason Watkins) turns up the pressure, Mr Maddens unwisely makes a boastful comment about his (now ex) girlfriend (Ashley Jensen) being a big shot producer in Hollywood. Thanks to Mr Poppy the rumour spreads like wildfire and before long, the whole town is in a frenzy of excitement over the upcoming Nativity play.
Try as it might, “Nativity!” just can’t shake of the feeling that it’s a made-for-TV Christmas special which got placed in the wrong distribution box and ended up in UK cinemas by accident. The direction is for the most part flat and uninspired, bringing nothing cinematic to the proceedings. Perhaps due to the semi-improvised nature of the film making, the finished product has a very uneven feel, with the pacing and storytelling a little disjointed and arbitrary.
Of the cast, Martin Freeman delivers a solid and deceptively complex performance as Paul Maddens, struggling with the pressure of the task against the backdrop of his own failed ambitions. Freeman is an often underestimated actor but he is capable of tremendous subtlety and power, as anyone who has seen his work in “Sherlock” and “The Hobbit” can attest to. He raises the whole of “Nativity!” up a notch and without him, it would have been a very poor film indeed. The ever dependable Pam Ferris, Jason Watkins and Ricky Tomlinson (as the Mayor) give good support but the film will largely succeed or fail for you based on your tolerance for Marc Wootton’s gratuitously over the top, unhinged performance as Mr Poppy. I accept that for any film, and perhaps even more so Christmas films, you have to be prepared to suspend disbelief to a degree, but while the character is responsible for more than one of the film’s hit and miss attempted moments of poignancy, much of his role is dedicated to doing things so stupid or frustrating or annoying that he robs the film of much of its credibility. Although played for laughs, there are events in this film which for me, being married to an infant school teacher, stretched my credulity beyond its tolerance.
Surprisingly, most of the child actors in this film are pretty good, perhaps because Marc Wootton overacts so often the kids are left to get on with it. Also ran “Britain’s Got Talent” contestant Jake Pratt gives an obvious, smug turn as Alfie but is totally eclipsed by Ben Wilby as Bob, daft as a brush, cute as a button and all without a hint of stage school entitlement in his performance.
As we go through the trials and tribulations of getting the production made (there’s a few slightly too long ‘cute’/ ‘hilarious’ audition montages), the film sags in the middle act, meandering through the plot and taking a strange detour to Los Angeles, before returning to Coventry to face the music.
The film’s saving grace, however, is that the Nativity play mounted by Mr Maddens, Mr Poppy and the children is really rather good. For that final fifteen minutes, the film positively glows with warmth, comedy and genuine emotion. It’s worth slogging through the rest of the adequate but even film, just for the delightful treat at the end when everything and everyone comes together for a happy and festive ending.