His star has risen in the past 12 years, but by the time Martin Freeman appeared in Debbie Isitt’s Nativity! (2009), he was but a cog in a British comedy machine. His starring parts were limited to The Office (2001-3) playing the straight man opposite Mackenzie Crook; one of three grooms in Isitt’s own Confetti (2006); and, of course, his salacious role as a nude stand-in in Love Actually (2003). One could postulate that he became a star off the back of Sherlock (2010-17). But few have commanded a Christmas film role as assuredly, as bravely, and as surprisingly as Freeman did as Nativity!’s Paul Maddens. This is where Freeman went from a valued British comic actor to a world-class performer.
Maddens is a put-upon Coventry primary school teacher whose creative impotence, romantic failure, and indignant class embarrassment cause him to tell his old-friend-turned-enemy and private school teacher Gordon Shakespeare (an excellent Jason Watkins) a big lie. He fibs that his ex-girlfriend Jennifer (played by Ashley Jensen, and implied to be an unrequited love interest of Shakespeare’s) will be bringing an entourage from the Hollywood production company where she works, to see the nativity he is directing with his class. The lie becomes all-consuming when his man-child teaching assistant Mr Poppy (Marc Wootton) repeats it to the school leadership and the press.
His character’s heartbreak with Jennifer coincided with a scathing minus-2-stars review for the nativity he directed several years before. He thus carries the weight of a generation of embittered, alienated teachers ground into dust by two decades of neoliberal education policies, whether it be academisation, astronomical examination standards for younger and younger children, or drastic budget cuts. He is never angry with the kids, just disappointed; he chides them more than anything about letting themselves down when they’re naughty; he laments the “boring” act of telling them off for wrongdoing. It’s an uncanny embodiment of British primary school language and ethics, made all the more perceptive by Isitt’s penchant for verisimilitude. The combination of encouraged improvisation, long takes, and filming in (one can only assume, given the budget) a real school outside classroom hours gives the project an almost Rivettian quality.
Or perhaps it’s closer to Ryusuke Hamaguchi, specifically his magical realist picture Asako I & II (2018). Both Isitt and Hamaguchi are deeply invested in actorly gesture, whether it be a seemingly throwaway shot of Pam Ferris’ headteacher sobbing at her desk, consumed with failure, or a fascination with the timid but wonderstruck faces of Mr Maddens’ class, and indeed Martin Freeman’s own face too. But, as with the mysterious duplicates in Hamaguchi’s film, when Nativity! finally explodes into its titular extravaganza, its pretence of plausibility and roughshod recognisability disappears as if by magic. Isitt’s ploy here is to replicate the burst of energy that creativity can represent amidst the mundanity of school life; but it also switches the film’s formal mode from strikingly reserved to an excess of colour, sweetness, and wonder. In doing the latter, finding Mr Maddens at last regaining his love of Christmas, it confirms that the film’s rhythms are all subtly attuned to his subjectivity. Isitt’s strapped-for-cash direction matches Freeman’s stoicism, just as the comparatively spectacular musical section fits his resurrection as a passionate, Christmas-loving idealist. Nativity! is a special and as-yet-unmatched outlet for Freeman’s unassuming, minor-key personality as an actor.