David Tennant

Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger

nativity 2 danger in the manger

The adorable children of St Bernadette’s in Coventry return for a second installment of Nativity, this time without the exclamation point. That’s because things don’t work quite as well the second time around, especially with insufferable teacher’s assistant Mr Poppy (Marc Wootton) still hanging about. This movie lacks a natural chemistry that guided the original story and sentiment and instead jerks forward like a hastily assembled Christmas play. The first film won me over because, despite its imperfections, it prioritised harried primary school teacher Mr Maddens (Martin Freeman), who struggled to instill some real values in his students while nursing a broken heart. It was unglamorous and a bit of a slow burn, but the process also yielded some touching classroom moments.

This Danger in the Manger edition, however, is more concerned with creating frenzy and pathos, a result of putting batty Mr Poppy at the centre. Although new teacher Donald Peterson (David Tennant) fills the responsible adult void, the character has few meaningful exchanges with anyone, at least none that don’t feel obligatory. The film throws up a few weak obstacles for him to sort through; his father (Ian McNeice) frowns on his unambitious career choice while Donald’s overachieving twin, Roderick (Tennant’s hipster twin), just can’t be bothered. Happily, he and his wife (Joanna Page) are expecting their first child, but his home life holds little weight, either with the audience or with the other characters, since everyone is gripped by Song for Christmas fever.

The students, egged on by Mr Poppy, are desperate to join the televised singing contest to be held in Wales. The prize pot and the chance for national fame attracts St Bernadette’s old nemesis, Mr Shakespeare (Jason Watkins) and his scarily talented show kids, who have prepared a Les Misérables-inspired Dickens medley. Roderick, a renowned director, also wants the spotlight on his intense boy band of choristers.

Eventually, this is a movie about the underdog; it’s Christmas after all. But it’s unevenly focused on the chase, on the physical journey to get over hills and dales to a castle in Wales. It leaves few moments of peace for any character to shine through with emotional clarity. Tennant is a non-factor, though Watkins, with a lesser part, really milks it. My ire is mostly directed at Mr Poppy and his enabler, actor Marc Wootton, who don’t so much hog the screen as they do jump, tumble, and splatter themselves all over it. While there is a positive energy buried beneath the unkempt mess, the responsible teacher in me can’t square with the onslaught of puerile antics, which include attacking teachers, kidnapping babies, and hopping abandoned rafts. It’s a relentless sideshow, and the most maddening thing is that Mr Poppy ends up being framed as the hero. His sage guidance not only helps the students but also Mr Peterson.

As with the first film though, the music proved to be a salve. Because the numbers are one-off performances by each of the contestants, there isn’t the consistency or cohesion of the pageant numbers that I adore for the original. Still, there is cheeky humor (‘All I want for Christmas is Christmas stuff’) and a rousing, kid-friendly campaign Christmas tune (‘Yes We Can’). They save the best for last though, and ‘Hawaii in My Heart’ deserves a spot on your holiday playlist.

‘Counting Down to Christmas’ by Shane and the Calendar Girls:

‘Snow Angel’ by Lloyd and the Snowballs:

‘Peace and Joy’ by St Cuthbert’s Choir:

‘Yes We Can’ by St Bernadette’s:

‘Born in the Hay’ by St Bernadette’s:

‘Hawaii in My Heart’ by St Bernadette’s:

Released: 2012
Prod: Nick Jones
Dir: Debbie Isitt
Writer: Debbie Isitt
Cast: David Tennant, Marc Wootton, Jason Watkins, Jessica Hynes, Pam Ferris, Ian McNeice, Joanna Page
Time: 105 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2015

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Learners

learners

When debating the merits of fictional driving instructors, it’s safe to say that David Tennant’s asthmatic, mild-mannered Chris in Learners wins out over Eddie Marsan’s abusive, combustible Scott in Happy-Go-Lucky. In this compact television film though, the face-off is between Chris and Ian (Shuan Dingwall), the testy layabout husband of Beverly (Jessica Hynes).

Beverly has the shameful distinction of failing her driving test eight times. She somehow manages to keep her permit but goes a bit batty whenever her hypercritical husband gives her a driving lesson. And while her life isn’t falling apart at the seams, it certainly feels that way to her. Ian invests their money in one shady scheme after another, the latest of which is a backyard owl breeding farm, and her daughter casually hopes to attend Oxbridge on her mother’s part-time cleaner’s salary.

Beverly finds her prospects looking brighter when she enrolls in driving lessons. It puts a strain on the family budget, enough for her to pilfer cash from her daughter’s savings tin, but Chris, her new teacher, gives her the attention and encouragement she needs to finally conquer the three point turn. That he is effortlessly patient and literally willing to go the extra mile makes her heartsick – both about her current partner and her lack of direction.

If you are more familiar with Hynes from her comedic work, notably as yappy airhead Siobhan Sharpe in Twenty Twelve, you might find yourself trying to read between the lines of Beverly’s sincerity. (Hynes is also the scriptwriter.) But she mostly plays it straight, though still in keeping with the overall wry tone of the piece. She shows herself to be a fit of a woman frustrated by her immobility, not just in terms of driving but also as a partially employed housewife who wants to but cannot find fulfillment as a wife or a mother.

Enter Fiona (Sarah Hadland) then, the wacky playhouse mirror reflection of Beverly. She owns the driving school and spends a lot of time convincing herself and others that she has a handle on it all, including her affair with a married police officer (Con O’Neill). Hadland does a similar turn in The Job Lot as a slightly neurotic, romantically challenged boss, but unlike that more buoyant character, Fiona tries her best to put off the awareness that she is a driving instructor who wants to go places but whose life is permanently stalled.

Hadland, along with Tennant, provide some of the funniest exchanges in the film. Both are immeasurably comfortable at inhibiting uncomfortable people. In one awkward situation, a study of perfect passive aggressiveness, Chris tepidly approaches his boss about a smoking coworker. He explains that not only does it aggravate his asthma but that it is illegal to smoke in the staff room. Fiona insists that her offending employee should not be made to feel a second class citizen, which allows Chris a pause to consider the issue from another point of view – and to take a big puff from his inhaler. Fiona replies, “Well I’m a Buddhist, and I try to see everything from everyone else’s perspective,” to which Chris responds without missing a beat, “That’s exhausting.”

Tennant’s lanky gawkiness is the perfect complement to Hynes and Hadland; he makes a pathetic but equally sympathetic Chris. A devout Christian with a corseted set of morals, he reacts like a shocked schoolboy when Beverly acts on her impulses and tries to kiss him. “I’m your instructor and a member of the DVLA!” he half shouts and pouts. With a guy so committed to doing his job, it’s no wonder everyone loves him.

Released: 2007
Prod: David Thompson
Dir: Francesca Joseph
Writer: Jessica Hynes
Cast: Jessica Hynes; Sarah Hadland; David Tennant; Shaun Dingwall; Con O’Neill; Richard Glover;
Time: 78 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Network: BBC One
Reviewed: 2014

The Decoy Bride

Decoy Bride

‘Enchanting’ is entirely appropriate when speaking of Kelly Macdonald, even – or especially – when she appears in below average romantic comedies. She stars as Katie, a woman who retreats to her island home upon encountering quarterlife doldrums. Having gone ‘man vegan’ and resigned from her job as a writer for a menswear catalog, she is quickly commissioned to write a guidebook to her forgotten town.

Only Hegg, pop. 75, is not so neglected. It is the setting of novelist James Arber’s (David Tennant) magnum opus, The Ornithologist’s Wife, and he is due to marry international film star Lara Tyler (Alice Eve). Relentless press coverage forces the couple and their publicity team (Michael Urie and Sally Phillips) to escape the city, and they head to the sleepy island while disguised as marketing conference attendees.

In short order, Katie and James have an awkward run-in at a disused loo, Lara spies a tenacious paparazzo and goes AWOL, and Lara’s jumpy handlers recruit Katie as the decoy bride (!). But romantic comedy hell breaks loose when a tabloid army descends on Hegg. The fake couple gets trapped in a castle and then nearly drowns trying to escape. Lara, meanwhile, discovers Katie’s ill mother milking the media for extra cash.

While the requisite elements are in order, the sum of this movie falls short of the Richard Curtis benchmark. There is, admittedly, added value in seeing David Tennant draped in fur and harvest gold paisley and traipsing the island as ‘Lord of the Bagpipes’, but James is hardly a compelling hero. (The Ornithologist’s Wife?!) The real gem is Macdonald, and she makes The Decoy Bride worthy of some cupcakes and a bottle of wine on a lazy Saturday night. Characters brighten or fade in relation to shared screentime with her. Katie is not the desperate quirk, and she won’t get the guy just because she says embarrassing things that he mistakes for being adorable. Instead, she has that charming and underused quality, in movies, of sober self-awareness.

 

Released: 2012
Prod: Robert Bernstein, Douglas Rae, Paul Ritchie
Dir: Sheree Folkson
Writer: Neil Jaworski, Sally Phillips
Cast: Kelly Macdonald, David Tennant, Alice Eve, Hamish Clark, James Fleet, Dylan Moran, Sally Phillips, Michael Urie
Time: 89 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2013