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The Independent Critic

Martin Freeman, Ashley Jensen, Marc Wootton, Jason Watkins, Pam Ferris and Alan Carr
Debbie Isitt
Rated PG
105 Mins.
Freestyle Digital Media

 "Nativity!" Review 
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Paul (Martin Freeman) is a failed actor turned primary school teacher with an anti-Christmas sentiment courtesy of an ill-timed dumping by ex-girlfriend Jennifer (Ashley Jensen), who has gone on to bigger and better things in Hollywood. When a fellow teacher at a posh local school, Gordon (Jason Watkins), begins bragging about his school's highly acclaimed Nativity plays, Paul himself can't resist falsely bragging that his own Nativity play has attracted attention from Hollywood this very year.

Thus begins Nativity!, a delightfully funny and sweet holiday film from writer/director Debbie Isitt that exudes everything we've come to love about British family-oriented cinema ... Nativity! is funny without resorting to cheap laughs, geared towards children without talking down to them and filled with heartfelt, positive and inspiring values without ever becoming preachy or over-the-top.

In other words, it clearly wasn't made in Hollywood.

Currently in the midst of a Video on Demand release courtesy of distributor Freestyle Digital Media, Nativity! on a certain level brings to mind the underrated comedy Happy, Texas, another film that took slightly off-kilter adults and put them into the lives of under-valued children in ways both funny and fantastic. Everything in Nativity! is predictable, as most holiday films are, but the predictability works thanks to the film's talented cast and a tremendous amount of improvisation that was encouraged by Isitt, who is reportedly already working on Nativity 2 to be released in 2012.

While this may sound like a very run-of-the-mill holiday film, having the film led by the immensely talented Martin Freeman is a stroke of luck and genius. Freeman avoids any faux holiday warm fuzzies by embodying Paul as a genuinely weathered and resigned teacher not too far removed from that of Steve Coogan's in Hamlet 2, though certainly with less bitterness. Freeman's Paul is remarkably grounded even amidst the occasional bits of chaos and silliness that happen throughout the film. Perhaps even more wonderfully, Freeman's Paul is less cartoonish and more sincere than we often find in these types of films ... he seems to genuinely care about the children, a feeling that seems to grow throughout the film to the point that the inevitable final production is a remarkably funny and genuinely moving production that reduced this normally placid film critic to tears more than once.

Much of the film's silliness and chaos comes courtesy of Marc Wootton's Mr. Poppy, the sort of lovable loser we always find in these films but one who is, once again, embodied with such a richness of sincerity within the silliness that you not only understand why the children adore him but you yourself begin to adore him. Ashley Jensen does a nice, understated job as Jennifer, the young woman who broke Paul's heart but who is never really made out to truly be a bad character here. Finally, there is Pam Ferris as the school's headmistress, a no nonsense woman who went to the school thirteen years earlier because she genuinely believed she could make a difference in the children's lives but is starting to face up to the fact that she hasn't done so. Ferris has a short but beautifully delivered monologue towards the end of the film that precedes the final production with the absolute perfect moment of emotional resonance.

Nativity! is filled to the brim with beautiful "Aw Shucks!" kinds of moments along with festive, genuinely inspired holiday music and perhaps one of the most delightful child ensembles found in a film this year. Rather than going for children who feel like "actors," Isitt has beautifully selected sweet, occasionally off-key and frequently very funny young children who make the resulting Nativity play out in a way that feels far more authentic than you'd ever think possible.

You can view the film yourself "On Demand" by clicking on the "Video On Demand" link above and watching the film for a mere $3.99 on Youtube. Once it's released on DVD, Nativity! deserves a place in your home's holiday collection with a warmth, intelligence and humor that is so seldom present in contemporary holiday releases.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic