Film Review: Nativity!

28/11/09 | Posted by MattPage

For many of us, the first time we really understood something about Jesus was perhaps when we starred in a nativity play. It’s a defining moment in many chldren’s lives, yet one rarely explored in the cinema.

Nativity! is the latest film by director Debbie Isitt starring Martin Freeman. Freeman plays Mr. Maddens a primary school teacher who was left with Scrooge-like attitude to Christmas after he was festively dumped by his girlfriend (Ashley Jensen) five years ago. Having previously studied drama, every year he is lumbered with producing the school’s nativity play and his enthusiasm for the project is further hampered by the shining brilliance of a rival school’s winter productions.

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 Martin Freeman and Ashley Jensen in Nativity!

The play takes a sadly all-too-expected turn when Maddens is joined by his new classroom assistant, Mr Poppy (Marc Wootton). Poppy is essentially just a big kid, whose youthful exuberance seems utterly invulnerable to the hard knocks that come everyone’s way sooner or later. If this joke goes on perhaps a little too long it does serve to help us identify with Freeman’s character a little more, and what is surprising is the way in which gradually we realise that we no longer find ourselves hugely annoyed by Mr. Poppy.

Mr. Poppy’s transformation nicely sums up two key aspects of the film. Firstly, that it does generally improve as it goes on, but secondly that it has the ability to produce surprisingly powerful moments. I actually found myself with tears in my eyes at numerous points in the film. Not only is this relatively rare for me, but the film also seemed to pull these moments off without them feeling in any way laboured. As films featuring kids go, it wasn’t hugely manipulative: there were no dying children, or doe-eyed long stares into the camera; no big build ups; even Freeman’s hugely predictable reunification with Jensen was played down rather than hyped up.

On reflection, what makes the film remarkable is simply that it “gets” kids. Not the crying, whining moments when you think that this time you really have gone insane – it’s a Christmas film after all – nor those “special occasions” that you will remember forever. No it’s the small, occasional, and subtle, little moments. A moment of connection here, a glint of potential there. Most films with kids feel the need to put them on a pedestal, make them pull cute faces or make them say something absurdly profound. In Confetti, Isitt managed to transform a monstrous brat tennis pro into a sympathetic and three dimensional person with two lines of dialogue. Here she manages to capture the odd moment that rings truer than 100 Love Actuallys ever could, from the self satisfaction of an armpit fart to a poorly executed dance move through to a kind word in a moment of sadness.

One of the strange things about nativity plays is the way they forge a link between the children who star in them and the Christ child who is the focus of the story. But in this film, that link is particularly profound. Only a few years after his birth, Jesus would have been the same age as these kids, no doubt complete with little moments of joy and hopeless dance moves. When God came to Earth he didn’t just do it as a tiny baby in a dirty stable, he also did it as a kid with dreams, fears and the ability to enrich the lives of those around him without really knowing why, even if he never dreamt of appearing in a Hollywood movie.

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It would be great if you would kindly link this article to our FREE resources for a primary assembly and a church all-age service - plus downloadable clips with permission to use in school/church.
Thank you.

David

#1. By David Whitmarsh on November 30, 2009

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