"The set up is as familiar as ever but the film does extremely well at never getting carried away with itself"

I hate holiday movies.  They’re frequently saccharine, forced and their attempts to portray a happy family atmosphere always leave me cold.  Bah humbug.  I don’t think I’ve enjoyed one since Planes, Trains and Automobiles in 1987 (and even then, that was about Thanksgiving, not Christmas).  It’s a wonderful surprise then when something isn’t as bad as you expected it to be and Nativity! is a surprisingly enjoyable yuletide yarn. 

Martin Freeman stars as Mr Maddens, a former stage actor turned under-achieving primary school teacher.  He has an intense rivalry with former colleague Gordon Shakespeare (Jason Watkins) who every year puts on the five-star rated nativity play at the posh school down the road.  A chance meeting between the two leads Maddens to boast that this year’s play has attracted the attention of his ex-girlfriend (Ashley Jensen)– now a big shot Hollywood producer and when the word gets out, he’s elevated to the status of local celebrity as everyone believes that Hollywood is coming to Coventry. 

Despite his attempts at back-pedalling, he soon finds himself amidst bickering parents, a jubilant Lord Mayor (Ricky Tomlinson), the adulation of the school’s headmistress (Pam Ferris), dozens of over-excited children and a menagerie of animals.

His classroom assistant Mr Poppy (Marc Wooton) is not making things any easier.  More interested in befriending the children than actually teaching anything, Mr Poppy is like a big kid himself – getting bundled by kids in the playground, sneaking them into a hospital to see an actual birth and generally causing chaos and mayhem which Mr Maddens is keen to avoid.

The set up is as familiar as ever but the film does extremely well at never getting carried away with itself.  This grounding is helped along wonderfully by Martin Freeman, his inherent sarcasm and grumpiness make the situation at least seem believable and heartfelt.  Mr Poppy is infectious in his enthusiasm, it’s very easy to get carried away by his well-meaning if often misplaced energy.

The kids are fantastic, there’s something quite satisfying about watching them produce a play that we’re all familiar with but each of them has enough of their own personalities to make them stand out and they’re easily the equal of their adult counterparts.

The contemporary feel that Mr Poppy brings to the stage production is entertaining and original, if you can overlook the plot point that a school with apparently no budget has suddenly acquired a first class costume designer and set construction team.  But while the Nativity production is creative, the same can’t be said for the romantic subplot which is as by-the-numbers as you could hope to achieve and the conclusion of the film is as plain as the festive socks you’ll know you’ll be getting for Christmas.

Saying that, it’s difficult to see how else a film like this could end.  In the same way that romantic comedies usually end up with smiles all round, in a U certificate film about Christmas, it wouldn’t make much sense to have anything but a happy ending.