UK Release Date: 23rd November 2018
Runtime: 100 minutes
Director: Debbie Isitt
Writer: Debbie Isitt
Starring: Simon Lipkin, Helen George, Brian Bartle, Craig Revel Horwood, Daniel Boys, Rupert Turnbull, Celia Imrie, Anna Chancellor, Ruth Jones, Hugh Dennis, Ramin Karimloo
Synopsis: As Mr Poppy’s brother arrives in search of his sibling, the school must fight for the chance to be part of a big Christmas show.
I feel like I should start this review with some disclosures, because my take on the Nativity franchise isn’t strictly impartial. I’ve never actually seen one of Debbie Isitt‘s films before, but I was born and bred in Coventry where the movies are set and made and I know people who have appeared in several of them. As such, when I took my seat for Nativity Rocks, I knew that my personal connection to Coventry was going to play into my perception of the film. What I wasn’t prepared for, though, is just how great that impact would be.
I cried on at least half a dozen occasions throughout Nativity Rocks, with the waterworks running pretty consistently for the entire third act. Partly, that’s down to the plot. On the less emotional side of things, Jerry Poppy (Simon Lipkin) has travelled to Coventry in search of his brother, but finds himself roped in to helping a bunch of schoolkids with rock songs for a Christmas show happening in the city, being run by prim celeb Emmanuel Cavendish (Strictly Come Dancing judge Craig Revel Horwood). The emotional arc, however, comes in the shape of displaced refugee child Doru (Brian Bartle) who has ended up in Coventry after being separated from his father (Ramin Karimloo).
In the world of Nativity Rocks, Coventry is an inspirational haven of tolerance and joy. That’s not necessarily the reality of the city in the non-movie, non-Christmas world, but it was enough to take my heartstrings for a ride and a half. Given how much time the UK, and indeed the USA, spends demonising refugees, it is refreshing, lovely and genuinely heart-warming to see a film designed for children in which the plight of a refugee child is greeted with nothing other than love and affection.
It helps, too, that Simon Lipkin is a comedic whirlwind in the lead role. His hysterical patter – like Jack Black in School of Rock if he drank a gallon of energy drink – takes some getting used to and is often exhausting, but his relationship with Doru provokes real pangs of emotion. Ramin Karimloo is terrific as Doru’s father, believable as a desperate man trying to make his way in a country that’s completely alien to him. It’s Karimloo’s contribution to a late in the day musical number that ignites the movie’s emotional fire.
At the end of the day, though, this is a slightly shonky children’s comedy. The supporting cast of British comedy greats, including Hugh Dennis and Jessica Hynes, embrace the disposable Saturday morning TV feel and it’s largely the charm of Christmas that ushers the movie over the line. Craig Revel Horwood’s hammy turn (“Coventry has always been a depressing and scruffy place”) doesn’t always land, but his panto villainy is entertaining enough that he never drags the movie below water and he’s supported by a cast of kids who are clearly having the time of their lives.
But film criticism quibbles were entirely secondary for me when watching Nativity Rocks. The overriding emotion for me was one of immense charm and warmth coupled with homesickness. I’ve been living outside Coventry for five or six years now, but I still have a great deal of affection for my hometown and Debbie Isitt knows exactly how to locate that affection and drag it kicking and screaming out of my tear ducts. Add the inherent emotion of Christmas and of music and of refugees trapped without parents and the result is a film that’s emotionally manipulative in all of the most gripping ways.
Pop or Poop?
For me, Nativity Rocks was 90 minutes of unrelenting Christmas joy, coupled with a bizarre reverence for a hometown I had no idea I loved as much as I do. For others, it’s a slightly creaky but ultimately basically enjoyable Christmas movie that benefits from some fun comedy performers and a cast of children giving it both barrels with all of the energy that approach requires.
It would take a real Grinch not to at least shed a tear or two.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.