One Christmas, I came down with flu. I was barely able to crawl out of bed, let alone go downstairs and gawk in awe at the presents under the tree, and I didn’t manage any Christmas dinner; it’s not a holiday that I remember fondly. However, one good thing that does stand out about that year was the Nativity! DVD stuck in the small “sick” television, (a heavy-as-hell old TV that only played DVDs, which my parents would down from the attic whenever me or my sisters were too sick to get out of bed). Too nauseous to get up and change the disc, I watched the movie on a loop for several days – needless to say, I know it pretty well.
Nativity! is a comedy movie released in 2009, written by Debbie Isitt and set locally in Coventry. It stars Martin Freeman as sad, almost-Scrooge-like primary school teacher Paul Maddens, (due to his girlfriend leaving him on Christmas day), who is asked to put on the annual school Nativity play. He is unable to wriggle out of this task, despite the fact that his last attempt to put on a Nativity was a catastrophe. Things only take a turn for the worse when Mr Maddens is stuck with a new assistant, Mr Poppy, who acts more childishly than most of the children in the class.
The humour is in the insanity of it all, as the audience has to suspend their belief and just let the movie run away with them
The majority of the plot focuses on St Bernadette’s school’s attempt to put on a play like no other, after Maddens tells his rival, Gordon Shakespeare, (Jason Watkins), that Hollywood is making a film out of their school nativity and the lie is leaked to the press. After seeing how excited his class is at the prospect of Hollywood coming, Maddens feels he has no choice but to keep up the white lie and try his best to convince his ex-girlfriend Jennifer (Ashley Jensen), who now works in Hollywood, to bring some of her team over to watch the play.
Meanwhile, light-hearted chaos ensues as Poppy (Marc Wootton) completely disrupts Maddens’ attempt to put on a traditional nativity. Instead, he suggests that the Angel Gabriel arrives on a death slide, takes the class on a school trip to see a baby being born, and kidnaps several farmyard animals to use in their nativity play. The stark contrast between the chaos of St Bernadette’s and the seriousness of rival school Oakmoor only adds to the humour, as the latter school constantly attempts to outdo the former. The humour is in the insanity of it all, as the audience has to suspend their belief and just let the movie run away with them.
Instead of trying to coax unrealistic lines out of children or cramming adults into school uniforms to play the roles, Nativity! just lets children be children and it’s part of what makes the movie so realistic
But the children are the real show-stealers. Following in the tradition of British shows like Outnumbered, the film is partially improvised and proves how funny children can be if just left to their own devices. Instead of trying to coax unrealistic lines out of children or cramming adults into school uniforms to play the roles, Nativity! just lets children be children and it’s part of what makes the movie so realistic.
One of the reasons Nativity! is my favourite Christmas film is that it’s so rooted in my childhood experience – when I was in primary school, we watched it again and again, year on year because our class would beg to do so. Often, people would sing the songs in the playground. It’s hardly surprising that the film reminds me so much of when I was little, especially considering the setting and plot of the film, (when re-watching the movie recently, one of my friends said: “How is it that every school in England is like this? My school was just like this!”), revolves entirely around a primary school.
But I don’t think it’s just nostalgia that draws me back to re-watch this film.
Nativity! is a film that anyone can enjoy, regardless of how old they are or where they’re from
It’s the care-free absurdity of Nativity!, so childlike in its spirit, and the difference from traditional Christmas films- there’s no magic driving the plot, just genuine human emotions that everyone has experienced and can recognise. The joy in the film is palpable; it’s obvious how much the cast had making the film. While the film will stick out strongly to those who grew up with it or those who see their own childhood reflected in it, Nativity! is a film that anyone can enjoy, regardless of how old they are or where they’re from.
Hilarious one moment and deeply touching the next (the majority of their class making their Christmas wish for “Mr Maddens to be happy” or “my mum to come and see me in the school play” is always particularly sweet), Nativity is simply a Christmas film that rises above the rest.