02 July 2013

Nativity! (starring Martin Freeman, Marc Wootten and Jason Watkins)

Yes, it’s July.

But our son gets fed up of Christmas films and songs in December, so we decided to watch this highly rated movie last night. Perhaps, we thought, it might detract a little from the heat and humidity that plagued us...

It’s the story of a struggling Catholic school where Paul Maddens (Martin Freeman) is a frustrated and often irritable teacher of small children. Once upon a time he went through a drama course, appearing on stage as an elf, and in a serious relationship with the beautiful Jennifer (Ashley Jensen). But then she went to the US in the hope of becoming a Hollywood producer, and so Paul decided to become a teacher. He also determined that he would never enjoy Christmas again.

So he’s not at all happy when his school Head (Pam Ferris) decides that he will be in charge of the school Nativity play that term. To make it worse, Paul’s old college friend Gordon (Jason Watkins) is a teacher at a local private school, where he gets rave reviews each year for his Nativity plays. And while Gordon isn’t exactly a villain, he’s rather snooty about Paul’s school and his chances. So Paul, thoroughly provoked, pretends that Jennifer will be bringing a Hollywood crew to see his school play. he doesn’t mention that he lost touch with Jennifer some years previously.

He doesn’t really suppose that Gordon will believe him, or that anything will come of his remarks, but unfortunately they’re overheard by Mr Poppy (Marc Wootten) who is Paul’s new classroom assistant. Not a normal quiet helper, he’s like a big kid himself, joining in with the children with great enthusiasm, and trusting everything he’s told. So he passes on the ‘news’ to the school Head (his aunt)... and the press get involved... and the silly lie gets more and more out of hand.

Most of the play is about Paul’s attempts to produce a Nativity play - or, rather, a musical - using children with little or no experience. And it works remarkably well. I don’t mean that he eventually produces a wonderful extravaganza - that’s pretty much taken as read, with a family Christmas film. But the children themselves are an absolute delight. We wondered how stage schools managed to produce such natural kiddies - and learned, when we watched one of the ‘extras’, that these were not stage school children, but ordinary ones, since the director wanted them to be natural. And that’s exactly what they are, although apparently the audition process took many months.

The film - as we also learned from the extras - was not closely scripted. Much of it was improvised, which probably explains why it really does feel like a typical British primary school, with a bunch of very ordinary children who, when gently pushed, do some fairly extraordinary things.

There are humorous scenes, one or two moving scenes, and a wonderfully schmaltzy ending which we had pretty much foreseen, although not entirely so. The whole is rated U (or G in the US), meaning that it’s entirely suitable for young children; certainly there’s no violence or bad language, and the romance, such as it is, consists of a few kisses and a little sliding about in snow.

There are some great performances by the children - they are all stars, and I hope that at least some of them have continued with their drama careers. The adults all play their parts well, with caricatures, admittedly - Paul Maddens is really very irritable, and Desmond Poppy so very boisterous - but it all works, and makes for a totally captivating hour and a half. Even if we did see it in July!

The extras - deleted scenes, interviews and ‘making of’ - are well worth seeing too.

Wonderful stuff. Don’t expect any depth of plot (although the point about a small lie growing out of control is well made) or character, or even any great surprises. Watch with your children or grandchildren, or perhaps your grandparents... and have a good clean laugh, and the satisfaction of a fairytale ending.

Review copyright Sue's DVD Reviews

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