Hollywood enjoys using the festive season as an excuse to fill multiplexes with Christmas-themed garbage, leading to dreck like Four Christmases, Surviving Christmas, Christmas with the Kranks, and too many more to list. It's rather pleasant, then, to witness a film like 2009's Nativity!, a low-budget British export which surpasses Hollywood's typical output by a considerable margin. To be sure, Nativity! is corny and predictable, but it's pitched at the right tone, with enough sincerity and sweetness to prevent it from feeling forced or manufactured. This is a lovely movie for the whole family - it's both funny and moving, and it stands up to repeat viewings. It's not exactly a classic, but it's enjoyable and it makes you feel good inside, which is far more than what can be said for most American holiday movies.
A primary school teacher, Paul Maddens (Martin Freeman) detests the holiday season, assuming a "bah, humbug" attitude after his long-time girlfriend Jennifer (Ashley Jensen) dumped him under the mistletoe. With Jennifer now working in Hollywood, Paul is stuck in his unfulfilling job, but things only get worse when he's forced to direct his school's Christmas pageant. Paul's last attempt at a Christmas show only led to humiliation, which was made all the more painful by the fact that his former pal Gordon Shakespeare (Jason Watkins) directed an acclaimed show at a local private school in the same year. Added to this, Paul is given a new teaching aid in the form of Mr. Poppy (Marc Wootton), an overgrown man-child who only got the job due to family connections. Determined to beat Gordon this year, Paul grasps the opportunity to direct the show, doing his best to whip the kids into shape. However, in a moment of poor judgement, Paul tells Gordon that Jennifer will be attending the show and bringing Hollywood with her, a lie that's accepted as truth by Mr. Poppy...who makes sure that the news spreads all over town.
The story eventually climaxes with Paul's colourful nativity play, which is full of singing and dancing. The real brilliance of this sequence is that the show is genuinely entertaining and well-staged, yet it doesn't feel beyond the talents of the characters involved. It will leave you smiling with plenty of joy in your heart, which is exactly what you want from a contemporary Christmas movie.
To be sure, the story of Nativity! is nothing original - in fact there are similarities to School of Rock - but it's writer-director Debbie Isitt's execution which allows the enterprise to soar. Reportedly, a great deal of the movie was improvised by Isitt and the cast, which is probably why it feels so real. There's even a montage of kids auditioning for the play that's actually very funny, and one gets the sense that Isitt is not simply on the prowl for laughs or manipulative emotion. Indeed, Nativity! is funny without resorting to cheap laughs, and it's geared towards families but it never insults one's intelligence. It also delivers joyful, heartfelt and positive messages without ever becoming preachy or over-the-top. In other words, it's clearly not Hollywood.
Isitt nails the small-town English sensibility, and you really feel that you're being given an inside look at a real-life primary school class. The set dressing is particularly convincing, while Isitt also incorporates other distinct details of primary school, including lackadaisical morning greetings. There's no trace of artificiality in the acting, not even in the little kids, which is extraordinary. Perhaps the improvisational approach is to thank for this, as the children are so delightfully charming and natural that you perpetually look forward to their next appearance. Also remarkable is Wootton, whose character of Mr. Poppy should be an irritating caricature, but turns out to be a truly likeable presence. But the star of the show is Freeman, whose sheer warmth and earnestness is a huge asset. Freeman wholly commits to the role and you believe that he cares about the kids, not to mention he gives convincing emotional depth to Paul.
Whereas most holiday-themed films arrive with aggressive marketing campaigns, Nativity! is more modest, with its humble origins and understated reputation making it all the more appealing. While it does end in a very predictable fashion, it shouldn't have concluded any other way. It's formula through-and-through, but it works against all odds. Compared to the contrived, schmalzy, hokey Christmas films that we see too much of, Nativity! feels more real and warm, recognising that honest-to-goodness sincerity is far more effective than manufactured emotion. It's delightful family-friendly viewing, and it's absolutely worth watching around the festive season unless you're a total Scrooge.