thu 22/02/2024

Nativity! | reviews, news & interviews



'Tis the season to give the cinema a wide berth

School of 'School of Rock': the kids are all right in 'Nativity!'

A filmgoing acquaintance has personally drafted a set of guidelines to increase her chances of a good time at the cinema. It’s a fairly hardline set of strictures. No sequels, for one. Not to mention the ban on cartoons. And in the most random cull, she will see no film with a two-word title in which the first word is “The”. It’s by no means a foolproof system. She gets to miss The Godfather on rule three and The Godfather 2 on rule one.

The Godfather 3 is additionally outlawed under rule two. Maybe it’s just that elongated time of year again that gently coaxes out the curmudgeon in one. But surely ‘tis the season to ponder a couple of additions to the rulebook.

Christmas movies. Does the world need them? There is a case to be made for a lengthy moratorium, if not a total abolition. No doubt exceptions to the rule exist, but none presently come to mind. But that’s nothing compared to the more chronic problem of the film with an exclamation mark in the title. The old rules about exclamation marks – never in any circumstance use them, in single or (God forbid) double or (heaven help us) triple formation – has regrettably been put to bed by text and email. In the cold hard shorthand of modern communications, the exclamation mark has a job of work to do. It is required to semaphore irony, which is pretty ironic given that in its old incarnation it signified the total absence of irony.

But anyway, here on a one-horse open sleigh comes Nativity! It’s a Christmas movie which is very eager for you to know that it’s only joking! It’s set in Coventry, for starters, unlike – unless I’m much mistaken - every previous film in the history of cinema. Not that anyone speaks in anything so research-based as a Midlands accent. Here’s the story. Mr Maddens (Martin Freeman), a failed actor turned state primary school teacher, is appointed as director of the school’s Christmas show. Only one problem: his class is uniquely untalented, while up the road at the posh school his former colleague Gordon Shakespeare (Jason Watkins) annually puts on brilliantly drilled spectaculars which earn rave crits from the local theatre reviewer (played with juicy relish by a moustachioed Alan Carr).

To make the task slightly harder, and the film about 900 per cent less believable, he has foisted on him a class assistant who appears to have the same mental age as his Year 6 charges. There’s one further catch. Mr Maddens, to put one over on his old rival, claims that his ex-girlfriend will be jetting in from the West Coast, where she is now some kind of hotshot producer. The local rag gets hold of it and a white lie takes root that the entire class is bound for Hollywood stardom. So the show really must go on.

Directed by Debbie Isitt, who didn’t quite make a coherent case as a director of comedy in Confetti, it’s not entirely apparent who Nativity! is for. Not punctuation fans, obviously. Nor plot enthusiasts, or characterisation junkies. It constantly tugs in two directions. On the one hand Mr Maddens gives the kind of po-faced lecture to the class tearaway about modifying his behaviour that belongs in a much more grounded film. On the other the class is barging in on a maternity ward to see how a real baby is born. There is even a sequence in Hollywood, whither Mr Maddens hastens to persuade his ex to come and film the show. As she’s played by Ashley Jensen of Extras, we are  greeted by the dispiriting sight of two actors proving quite how much they owe to the patronage of Ricky Gervais.

And yet weirdly it’s not quite a waste of space. The junior cast is engaging in a school of School of Rock kind of way. And the climactic Christmas show is everything the film that frames it is not: funny, moving, spectacular and wildly ambitious. It’s also, of course, ruthlessly manipulative. But we’ll let that go. In the words of the much loved cartoon character Noddy Holder, it’s Chriiiiistmaaaaaas!!!

Nativity! is on general release from Friday.

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Was looking forward to this film. And despite everything you said was prepared to hang in there with it, until you mentioned the bit about him going to Hollywood to talk to his old girlfriend. This is the 'Notting Hill' factor - the implausible intrusion of international glamour into what should have been a defiantly local story. What's wrong with a film set in Coventry that sticks with things that might conceivably happen in Coventry? Yet another British film that starts in a good place and gets it wrong. Still, I might yet go and see it.

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