It’s been four days since I saw Nativity! and I’m still not sure why that exclamation mark is there. It could be to portray the excitement and wonder that the film so desperately tries to portray, or it could be an exclamation warning cinematic diabetics to steer well clear of what is likely the most sickly sweet film of 2009.
Nativity! finds us in the company of teacher Mr Maddens, who works in a typical Primary School in Coventry. It’s approaching Christmas and he has been laden with the responsibility of not only directing the school’s yearly nativity play, but also with beating the local rival private school (who’s nativity is run yearly by Maddens old drama friend, one Gordon ‘Shakespeare’). All is fine until old demons have Maddens tell Shakespeare that his ex-girlfriend, now an assumed successful Hollywood producer, is coming to their small town production to turn it into a movie… and a book. Cue all hell breaking lose as the town, school, parents and general populous all go gaga over the potential fame fictitiously coming their way.
The film is directed and part written by theatre multi-award winner Debbie Isitt who is known primarily for her stage work in the 80s. You can see the stage influence in this production as well as her known work with improvisation. Much of the films basic work is improvised with the actors coming up with a lot of their dialogue between themselves which both helps and hinders this pieces over all effect.
The main problem with Nativity is it’s ridiculously fairytale premise that relies entirely on the audience finding the on screen antics charming and adorable. This works for about an hour but once the kicks into full schmaltz mode and the happy fantastical fantasy ending comes crashing in it is all just a little bit too much.
The two main adult roles of Mr Madden and Mr Poppy, a larger than life man-child classroom assistant are played by the likeable and entertaining Martin Freeman (Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy) and Marc Wootton (Confetti). Throughout the earlier parts of the film their improvised banter is sharp and funny with hints at the emotional well to be unlocked later on. They exchange lines and bounce the dialogue like a crafty tennis match and seem fairly comfortable with the level of material at hand. Neither is being especially stretched in a money light production that has all the feel of a BBC TV movie, but do enough to carry the film through the early scene setting elements it needs to build towards the children’s finale.
The children, of course, are the ultimate centrepiece in this Christmas spread of lessons learned and happiness rediscovered. The class is choc-a-block with tiny little tin openers for the heart, each one cuter and slightly more ‘aww’ inducing than the last. One scene sees the film attempt a light hearted dig at our X-Factor, Britain’s Got Talent culture, but comes off as using the exact same devices in order to pull us in for the big pay off. The Cheeky Monkeys, who were finalists on the second series of Britain’s Got Talent even make an appearance as part of the adorable line up of classroom entertainers.
Once the initial shine wears off the film loses it’s way a little. The story advances towards it’s supremely happy ending and more of the smaller plot lines and left to fall dead. It doesn’t feel whole in the sense that instead of a journey through the characters satisfying resolution it just wants to get to the ultimate happy ending for everyone. Not a single character loses out here. After a point the sharper dialogue gives way to the emotional, with no one in the cast really being able to punch their way through the tougher stuff leaving you taking nothing more from this that the ‘aww’ factor, which for many will quickly become a little too much. Freeman is easily the most successful at bringing Mr Maddens journey full circle with some stronger performance of the emotional subtleties required to play against the children’s innocent and honest performances.
As a Christmas movie it hits its targets as it’s unapologetically happy by the end and everyone is in love and fulfilled. Friends and families come together, dreams are realised and pains forgotten. It’s just all done is such sugar coated way that if the children haven’t held your attention, you’re a goner. With a little less icing and a little more bite this could have been a perennial repeat, but the overall TV light production will see it fall as time passes. It’s delightful, but forgetful. A nice little movie full of family fun, but nothing against seasons heavyweights like White Christmas.