We went to see the film Nativity on Tuesday night.
My hopes weren’t high, half expecting something schmaltzy, seasonal Santa Claus The Movie. The first good sign was that Martin Freeman was starring, a step up from his small part in Love Actually (which featured the most colourful-looking Nativity play I’d ever seen). Unlucky in love in that film, he’d already lost Lucy in The Office, and would later lost Trillian in Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, and true to form was walked out on at the start of Nativity too.
Set in Coventry* it’s a film about two amateur actors who end up teaching in two primary schools, in charge of rival nativity productions. Paul Maddens (played by Freeman) is working in the “failing” St Bernadette’s Roman Catholic primary; whereas Gordon Shakespeare (played by Jason Watkins) is in the toffee nosed, private school.
*Staying overnight in Coventry, I once asked a policeman where he'd recommend I go to eat. He turned on his heels, pointed and said "Birmingham!"What starts out as a small lie told to impress and annoy Shakespeare quickly mushrooms into an impossible to fulfil promise – that Maddens’ thespian ex-girlfriend who ran off to seek her fortune in Hollywood would be bringing a big studio name to see the school’s production.
The little school is excited. The press are excited. Coventry council are excited. Maddens is in trouble.
That’s the background, and the rest of the film follows Maddens as he tries to rescue his oversold and doomed production. Thrown into the mix is a new classroom assistant. With a strong whiff of nepotism, the headmistress has appointed her nephew Mr Poppy (Marc Wootton). He’s a big child, more at home in the playground than the staffroom. To him it’s obvious that the prospective shepherds will need some experience of real sheep and real childbirth.
One review I read explained his role as one of “messianic fool”.
“Far from being the disciplinarian [Maddens] believes they need, Mr Poppy gets down to the children’s own level. His incarnational approach echoes God’s willingness to reveal his love for us by becoming one of us. Like [Maddens], Mr Poppy has grandiose plans for the nativity production. The difference is, his are centred on the children, not himself.”
I’m not sure I picked up all of that while sitting watching the film myself, but it seems plausible. Lots more insights over on Damaris' resource page. Though in terms of tackling the Christmas story, baby Jesus is lucky he didn’t fall to the cutting room floor (or perhaps the Final Cut Pro bin) and not appear at all.
While digging himself in deeper and deeper by not admitting the central lie, Maddens is quick to rebuke Mr Poppy for his unorthodox and juvenile behaviour, and cajoles less-enthusiastic and uncooperative children. Meanwhile, down the road, Shakespeare pulls off a distressing and painful to watch nativity centred around Herod’s execution of the male infants.
It’s an interesting film. None of the cast look glamorous. In fact, they look deliberately ordinary. A lot of the singing is very obviously dubbed. While the children are sometimes sweet and cute, they’re not outrageously talented prima donnas. Yet near the end, the headmistress admits:
“Nobody ever expects enough of the children at St Bernadette’s ... All I know is that each and every one of these children is amazing and wonderful and a pocketful of stardust.”
Something echoed by many a parent at local school carol services in recent weeks.
So if you fancy an afternoon in the cinema before you go back to school/work, you’d do worse than go and see Nativity. It’s no Chronicles of Narnia, but the teenage girls in the row behind us loved it. Just a pity they didn’t squeeze an octopus into the nativity scene somewhere! Oh, and a pity they didn't scrap the last line before the credits.
Just noticed that the Guardian's Jason Solomons was less enthusiastic:
The film taps into our nation's ability to celebrate all things amateurish and dreadful. Cue thinly drawn sitcom characters (Mr Poppy, the creepy man-child classroom assistant, and TV's Alan Carr as a theatre critic), ooh-aren't-we-a-bit-crap-but-at-least-we-can-laugh-at-ourselves British jokes and rows of ugly children with bad teeth and ugly specs singing songs that start: "Things are really cool in Nazareth."
Another tin of humbugs for Mr Solomons please!