Friday, December 23, 2011

25 Days of Christmas Movies, Day 23: The Nativity...with a Twist

There are so many reasons to celebrate Christmas.  Spending time with family, giving and getting gifts, thinking about what we're thankful for...and of course celebrating the birth of Christ.  As many are aware, Christmas is meant to commemorate the date of Jesus's birth in the manger to Mary and Joseph (as it is told in the Bible)...and as fewer know it was set for the 25th of December in order to overshadow the already existing pagan holiday of Yule (which is where we get our Christmas tree and wreath traditions).  However, despite the commercialization of the holiday and the focus on giving and getting gifts, many circles still find the time to memorialize the birth of Jesus (regardless of whether or not it was actually on December 25th) by staging plays and pagents about the Nativity.  In merry old England, the schools even get in on the act by staging annual Nativity plays; which brings us to today's film.  It is the story of a teacher who is trying to produce the best darn Nativity play ever, though it may just blow up in his face in the process.  However, don't let me spoil the surprises here...why don't we all head down the road to the primary school and watch Nativity!

Paul Maddens, a former drama school graduate, is a frustrated teacher working in an under-performing primary school in Coventry, England called St. Bernadette's.   Every year they compete with Oakmoor private school in the staging of their annual Nativity Play.  Oakmoor always puts on a much better show than St. Bernadette's, largely due to their director Gordon Shakespeare, who is also an old drama school alum and had worked closely with Paul and Paul's ex-girlfriend Jennifer Lore.  This year, despite his objections and having failed in his first and only attempt at staging a Nativity play several years back, the principal of St. Bernadette's, Mrs. Bevans, appoints Paul to be this year's director.  To add insult to injury, Mrs. Bevans appoints her nephew, Desmond Poppy, to be his production assistant in the hopes of inspiring Poppy to grow up.  Shortly after writing his script, Paul has a run in with Shakespeare (who is posturing madly about this year's play) and Paul, in a desperate attempt to save face, mentions that not only is he back in touch with his ex, but she is now a Hollywood producer who is coming to film St. Bernatette's Nativity play.  Mr. Poppy overhears and spreads the word to the other teachers and the community.  Now, with everyone thinking that the Nativity play is going to become famous, Paul must keep the lie going by producing the best show possible and trying to convince someone from Hollywood to actually come to see and film the play. With the performance date racing toward them and the problems of the show mounting, Paul begins to wonder if he will still be employed when all the excrement hits the fan.

It's not often I get to view a new holiday-themed film that is entertaining.  I usually find that today's Christmas films are obnoxious and/or cloying, but Nativity! really surprised me.  It was witty, suspenseful, hilarious, and had surprisingly good original music for Paul's Nativity play.  Not being familiar with the British custom of doing Nativity plays in school (here that is not acceptable due to the separation of church and state), I was surprised to see how seriously they took it and also how common place religion and school seemed to be.  I'm not against the separation, mind you, but it was refreshing to see a school environment that was able to meld education and religious topics seamlessly and naturally together.  The enthusiasm of the community it producing the play was also a nice touch, though the enthusiasm was a bit misplaced given that many of them felt that the children should be paid to be filmed by Hollywood.  The music was very charming and I found myself humming the songs once the film was over.  Also of note are the two performances of Martin Freeman as Paul and Marc Wootton as Mr. Poppy who appear as a very natural and charming odd couple.  Freeman is always a class-act as the straight man, and Wootton acts as a perfect foil to him.  I know that many people do not enjoy British humor, but if you can get into it I really think you will find Nativity! to be an enjoyable and uplifting experience for your holiday film enjoyment.

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