Review: Nativity!

Let get this out of the way: Debbie Isitt’s festive family offering Nativity! is schlock of the first order, commercialised, trite, anti-feminist and utterly derivative. It has, naturally, spawned three (three!) sequels.

Teacher Paul Maddens (played by put-upon everyman Martin Freeman), an embittered soul who despises Christmas because, inevitably, his implausibly attractive girlfriend Jennifer left him for Hollywood on Christmas Eve, is tasked with directing the school nativity play, with the help of excitable teaching assistant Mr. Poppy (Marc Wootton). Paul’s tragic flaw is pride, and accordingly he brags to the despised Gordon Shakespeare (Jason Watkins), the headmaster of a nearby private school, that Jennifer, now a big-shot Hollywood producer, is coming to watch the nativity in the hopes of turning it into a film. The local press gets hold of the story and things escalate in a predictable manner, leaving Paul with a problem: because of course Jennifer isn’t actually coming to the nativity, on account of the fact that she lives in America and broke up with him years ago. How, therefore, can Paul save both his career and his love life in one fell swoop?

The film leans heavily on the idea that Christmas is a festival of love, figured here exclusively as romantic love: Paul hates Christmas, and lives in a characterless bachelor pad full of Ikea furniture, because he has no-one to love; Jennifer’s inevitable return is basically the ultimate Christmas present, miraculously restoring his zest for life and for the most commercialised of all holidays. Interestingly, no-one ever suggests that Paul finds a new girlfriend, or gets some friends. Nor is the film particularly interested in Jennifer’s viewpoint: in fact it actively minimises her agency when Paul flies out to America to see her and finds that her high-flying job in Hollywood it is is actually “just” a secretarial position. Although she does eventually convince her film-producer manager to see the nativity, the convincing happens off-screen, and it’s sold to us not as the work of a savvy, confident professional pitching an idea to her manager, but as an indulgent boss graciously condescending to a favoured employee. There’s also absolutely no interrogation of why Jennifer would leave a fairly high-level job where she’s obviously being treated well for a miserable boundary-crosser who she’s already left once. I’m not saying that people don’t move long distances for people they love, but it would be nice to get some sense of why she chooses this relationship beyond “that’s what the narrative logic demands”.

The other capitalist cliché that the film puts a lot of stock in is “you can do anything if you really try”. The children Paul teaches are, ostensibly, disadvantaged kids who’ve been written off as hopeless (in contrast with the privileged children at Gordon Shakespeare’s private school); and so, when their nativity turns out, miraculously, to be the sort of production an am-dram society could be legitimately proud of, it is a testimony to the power of belief, and the power of being believed in. There’s some interesting, if basic, class analysis buried in there: the way in which the British school system disadvantages certain children is not the sort of thing you expect a film like this even to engage with. But the way it’s handled feels basically superficial; the politics are not allowed to trouble the feelgood surface of the narrative too much. For one thing, there’s hardly any indication of the ways in which these children are disadvantaged. No-one is coming to school hungry. No-one has outgrown their uniform or is wearing shoes that are falling apart. No-one is even that disruptive: I think there is one scene in which a boy hits another child, and then has a conversation with Paul in which he is encouraged to mend his ways. We’re told that these children have been given up on, but the evidence just isn’t there. They’re just…quite ordinary middle-class kids who are ordinarily untalented who do ordinary gross-kid things like belch the alphabet (an achievement that the film treats as evidence of serious social dysfunction, for some reason). They’re also all white, apart from one (1) Black child, which, for a film set in Coventry, a city with a sizeable Asian population, is a bit of a surprise.

This all has the effect of minimising the ways in which privilege manifests in the real British school system: the film makes it look like something that a) is not that bad in the first place and b) can be easily overcome by a sufficiently motivated and enthusiastic teacher; neither of which are, of course, true. This representational laziness is symptomatic of the film as a whole: narratively speaking, it consistently takes the easy way out, flattening profound human emotion, hewing slavishly to stereotypes and repeating outdated romantic cliches in contexts that make them seem even more ill-advised than usual (whisking two children away on an unplanned trip to America in order to woo a Hollywood exec? That’s not just a bad idea, it’s practically career suicide if you’re a teacher).

And yet. The songs are quite good. Marc Wootton’s energy as enthusiastic big kid Mr. Poppy is irresistible. And, after all, there is some comfort in cliches at Christmas. I cannot wholeheartedly recommend Nativity! in the same way as I can recommend the masterpiece of adaptation that is The Muppet Christmas Carol. But the part of me that delights in glittery, upbeat, campy things would not be entirely unhappy to watch it again. Ideologically, intellectually, it’s a terrible film. But it does exactly what it sets out to do; it works on the emotions in exactly the way it’s supposed to. There’s something a little pleasing about that.

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