My critical defenses are lowered at Christmastime. Average movies that earnestly convey the Christmas spirit and enkindle greater love for others tend to get a pass. Bonus points are awarded for really cute kids, and singing. By this measure, Nativity! qualifies as a damn good holiday movie. At risk of sounding like an internet troll, if you don’t feel a little better about humanity after watching this group of underdog kids pull off the best nativity play ever, you have no heart.
The story revolves around Paul Maddens (Martin Freeman) and the primary students of St. Bernadette’s in Coventry, who attempt to stage a successful Christmas play after years of mediocre efforts. The retiring head teacher, Mrs. Bevans (Pam Ferris), tasks Mr. Maddens with organizing the production, but that is the last thing the burned out teacher needs. Besides, Christmas is just a seasonal reminder that his girlfriend Jennifer (Ashley Jensen) has left him.
Mr. Maddens, an undistinguished graduate of Midlands Academy of Performing Arts, nevertheless begins to compose a few songs, but his meticulous planning is thrown into disarray with the arrival of his teaching assistant, Desmond Poppy (Mark Wootton). Wooten’s antics test the audience’s patience; Mr. Poppy has the emotional maturity of a middle schooler, which younger kids find boisterous but which thinking, responsible adults probably find offensive. When he is not encouraging general pandemonium, he is planning a field trip to a maternity ward so that the students can better act out the birth of Jesus. “I’ve got a big oaf helping my children to fail,” says Mr. Maddens, after suffering a complete breakdown in classroom control.
Mr. Poppy needlessly complicates things when he overhears and spreads a rumor that Jennifer, a producer, will be filming St. Bernadette’s nativity play. The misunderstanding escalates far too quickly to be believable but does provide the narrative tension to move the film towards its showy climax. Before long, the entire town thinks that Hollywood will be descending on the school. Mr. Maddens’s old friend and current nemesis, Gordon Shakespeare (Jason Watkins), doubles down and plots a grander production for his elite private school students. “We need something edgier, more dangerous, something darker. Something like the RSC do every year….Something European, strange, exotic. Something the Americans don’t understand but love.” They decide to stage “Herod, the Opera.”
This strain of dry humor, which Freeman is especially adept at, runs throughout the movie, but the comicality of the script is complemented by Mr. Maddens’s more serious conversations with his students. Not only does he encourage a group of ordinary kids to be a little more than that but he also wants them to just be kinder people. His heartfelt attempts to teach them something actually worthwhile do not come off as syrupy or manipulative but as simply honest, so says the teacher in me.
Those Christmas-appropriate lessons of love and generosity come together in an uplifting finale. It is a nativity play to beat all nativity plays, not because of its polish but because the spirit and story of Christmas shine through so clearly. The soundtrack is truly unbeatable, one that will last for many holidays to come.
There are 6 original songs in the nativity that are sung by the children. Here are 3 that will make your heart melt.
“She’s the Brightest Star”
“One Night, One Moment”
Prod: Nick Jones
Dir: Debbie Isitt
Writer: Debbie Isitt
Cast: Martin Freeman, Mark Wootton, Jason Watkins, Ashley Jensen, Alan Carr, Pam Ferris, Ricky Tomlinson, Clarke Peters
Time: 105 min
Country: United Kingdom