21st Century Modernity in THE HOLLY AND THE IVY

A classic Christmas tale made for today

I’ve always been a big lover of Christmas movies, whether they be older classics (Christmas in Connecticut), newer classics (The Muppet Christmas Carol), underrated (The Family Stone), unheralded (Mixed Nuts), or virtually unheard of (Six Weeks). Every year I look forward to discovering yet another tale infused by the holiday in one way or another with characters whose lives can’t help but be influenced by what it now known as “the most wonderful time of the year.” The new addition to my collection of Christmas movie favorites came this year in the shape of The Holly and the Ivy, a tiny British film which, to my knowledge, isn’t all that well-known. Directed by George More O’Ferrall from the successful stage play, 1952’s The Holly and the Ivy concerns the well-respected Gregory family, whom we meet as they gather to celebrate their first Christmas since the death of the family matriarch. The members include Reverend Martin (Ralph Richardson), daughter Jenny (Celia Johnson), son Michael (Denholm Elliott), daughter Margaret (Margaret Leighton), sister Bridget (Maureen Delaney), and sister-in-law Lydia (Margaret Halstan). As they all gather together on Christmas Eve, harbored resentments and fiercely-guarded secrets will come to light as the Gregorys re-evaluate one another as a family.

From the description of the movie’s plot, it would be easy to assume that The Holly and the Ivy is a traditional, old-fashioned British affair, stodgy and stagey with nothing new to offer. Yet almost as soon as we encounter each family member, we find ourselves completely transfixed with each of them. Aunt Bridget and Aunt Lydia are especially charming and make for an entertaining pair, with the former uptight and proper (but with a warmth which sneaks up when least expected) and the latter a romantic idealist through and through. All of the characters are so well-written, allowing the film to soar as more of a character-driven effort instead of a plot-driven one. We see the Reverend accept with a tinge of sadness the fact that his time and the influence he once possessed among the community is fading away, leading him to ponder who he is now and reflect on the life and family he created. It’s interesting to watch all three of his children come to their own impasses within life. We see Michael finally shed his man/boy existence as he confronts his father about what life meant for him as his son, while Jenny wrestles with her role as her father’s caretaker as she contemplates a proposal from a neighboring suitor and a potential life in South America. It’s Margaret who undergoes the largest transformation, though. After being curiously absent from the festivities for quite some time, her return comes with ghosts from her own past, which have been eating away inside her to the point where she’s turned into a beautiful wreck of a woman.

What’s so miraculous about The Holly and the Ivy is how ahead of its time it was in terms of content and themes considering the era in which it was made. The problems faced by the members of the Gregory family are all true to life and are the kind of real-life troubles the holidays have a way of forcing us to confront. The fact that a polite British drama from the ‘50s set at Christmastime tackles such problems is a real marvel. Take, for example, Jenny’s self-imposed duty of looking after her father following her mother’s death. It’s a role she chooses to take on despite the promise of a life of her own, which includes marriage to a man who adores her. It’s more than a little surprising when prim and proper spinster Aunt Bridget insists that Jenny go after her young man and not make the same mistake she did of looking after her own parents. How rare it is in films such as these to have an older character not bound by such traditions who encourages the younger generation to think about their own lives. Generational differences are given a brighter spotlight in the latter half of The Holly and the Ivy when Michael confronts his father about what being the child of the town’s Reverend meant for him and his sisters — specifically the pressure to succeed and do well. But it’s in the character of Margaret where The Holly and the Ivy feels like a film for today. A successful fashion journalist in London, the lonely Margaret is alcoholic, depressed, and despondent following the death of the son she had out of wedlock from an American soldier shot down during the war. The toll life has taken on Margaret has caused her to shut her family (who know nothing about the events) out of her life and banish herself into a world of booze, making her return feel like a wish for redemption.

If there’s one gripe some may have with The Holly and the Ivy is that while it gives all its characters proper resolutions, it ends too abruptly. Certainly all of these characters and their various issues prove involving enough to warrant further exploration. But if nothing else, this is a film that is paced well and never outstays its welcome. More O’Farrell also manages to make his film feel like an actual film. Through deliberate movement, camera shots, and a touching montage featuring carolers, The Holly and the Ivy thankfully never comes off as anything but cinematic. But this is a film about the people in it and what Christmas means to them at this particular stage in their lives. In a very obvious sense, this is a tale about a family trying to mend itself at a time in history when the country was trying to rebuild pick itself back up after the war. With their problems being somewhat similar, the film ends up being not just a yuletide story, but a silent testament to a country trying to salvage what it once was. Never once schmaltzy, cheesy, or desperate to be liked, The Holly and the Ivy is a stunning holiday film featuring genuine people with genuine conflicts set against the most emotional time of the year.

The Holly and the Ivy is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

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