100TH REVIEW: The Holly and the Ivy (1952)

The Holly and the Ivy (UK, 1952)
Directed by George More O'Ferrall
Starring Ralph Richardson, Celia Johnson, Margaret Leighton, Denholm Elliott

This is the 100th review I have written since launching Mumby at the Movies.

In my review of Elf twelve months ago, I said that "the single biggest problem with most Christmas films is that they have little or nothing to do with Christmas." I argued that Elf fell into both main traps of Christmas films, being unashamed in its celebration of consumerism and unambitious in settling for schmaltz instead of brains.
But of course, not every proper Christmas film has to directly restage the Nativity. As much as I heap deserving praise on Whistle Down The Wind, there are many other ways of approaching the meaning of Christmas which do come off, often in surprising ways. The Holly and the Ivy is one such surprise, beginning as a somewhat risible, unintentional comedy but then slowly revealing itself to be an intelligent, moving and compelling drama. While Bryan Forbes' work remains the gold standard in this genre (at least for British filmmakers), it has much that deserves to be celebrated and more than enough to recommend it. 
The Holly and the Ivy is part of a long tradition of British talent collaborating with European, American or other foreign influences. Britain has always been a cultural melting pot, in which different peoples and cultures have mingled and shared ideas, resulting in work which is distinctive, if not unique. The most famous example of this would be The Archers, comprising English director Michael Powell and Hungarian writer and producer Emeric Pressburger. In this case, an English director (George More O'Ferrall) is working with a Russian screenwriter (Anatole de Grunwald) to adapt an English play by Wynward Browne.
It would be glib to say that the finished project resembled a bizarre cocktail of opposites, being two parts Anton Chekhov and one part English comedy of manners. But in truth, that's exactly what it is. The surface and much of the opening is old-fashioned English comedy, with the kind of awkward, stiff-upper-lip conversations that can make 1950s films pretty tiresome. But as things go on the influence of Chekhov grows, and the film becomes less about comedic understatement and more about repression, anxiety and loneliness.
For this reason, the opening is both silly and forgettable. The film is theatrical in nature, relying heavily on montage and with most of its early dialogue consisting of characters walking into rooms, saying their lines and then cutting somewhere else. O'Ferrall makes the common mistake of increasing the number of locations to appear more cinematic, which only draws attention to the fact that the translation from stage to screen is not a smooth one.
Our introduction to the characters is hampered by this failure in translation. O'Ferrall takes the kind of conversations that are normally handled via exposition in the first act, and restages them in a really awkward way. The film grows increasingly silly as the characters are crowbarred into being in the same place for Christmas, with plot convenience taking priority over logic. Denholm Elliott gets the silliest hand of all; having been told by the Major that there was no way he could get leave, the Major changes his mind for no reason the second that he's out of the room.
Once we get to the house, and have adjusted to the vagaries of the characters, the film slowly but surely gets into gear and reveals more of its true nature. It becomes less about a bunch of characters thrown together for the sake of laughs, and more about questions of duty, desire and how family conflicts come about. Even the setting takes on a different character, feeling more like the oppressive domestic settings of The Three Sisters or Uncle Vanya, being places of little comfort from which there is seemingly no escape.
Like Chekhov, or his predecessor Henrik Ibsen, the drama of The Holly and the Ivy emanates from frustrations and secrets kept from different family members which eke out as a result of spending time together. In this case it is Margaret's past, involving an affair with a US serviceman and an illegitimate child who died of meningitis. Margaret is criticised for seeming distant from her father and indifferent to his plight, in complete contrast to both her sister and their dynamic when she was a child. The sisters' relationship is reflected in their aunts, one of whom is childlike, the other so curmudgeonly that she's sometimes hard to take seriously.
The film adeptly recreates the awkwardness of family get-togethers, with many family members having to hold their tongues and repress their true feelings. Some of this could be chalked down to the period in which the film was made; people were not as open in expressing their feelings, possibly due to fear of being disciplined or a greater emphasis on paternal authority and respect. But what really sells the film, as a good drama and a Christmas film, is a feeling of burdens being lifted at least somewhat by the end. There is genuine development with these characters, and while the film doesn't offer easy answers, it offers hope where it can.
One of the central themes of the film is the conflict between duty and desire. The conversations between David and Jenny are similar to those in Brief Encounter (which also starred Margaret Leighton). Jenny's love and need to care for her father are contrasted by the devotion and escape offered by her lover. Both characters are at an important crossroads in their life, in which the wrong decision could lead to a lifetime of regret and loneliness, whichever side they choose.
The Holly and the Ivy is also intelligent in examining the meaning of Christmas. Unlike many more overtly religious offerings, it has the confidence to talk about the non-Christian origins of many Christmas traditions, tying them subtly into the story. The title derives from the popular carol, with the holly representing the male and ivy the female of a given household. Does the Reverend run the house, or does his daughter? And who in turn rules her life?
The dialogue also mentions a mediaeval feast at which three buckets of water were thrown over a curate, and comments about days being added to the calendar around the Winter Solstice, with "no-one being really sure what they were for". Comments like these are used to tease out the characters' insecurities and the feeling of inertia at all being together and not knowing what to do. They also prevent the moral from feeling schmaltzy, having the decency to be honest with us so that it feels truthful.
The film also shows the failure of communication that religion can cause, albeit inadvertently. The children keep secrets from their father because he would react like it was a moral issue, or because he has convinced himself that such truths cannot exist. At the end of the film he realises how blind he has been, being so wrapped up in serving others that he couldn't help those who truly needed him.
But rather than trample on the whole concept of faith or religious belief, the film does things the hard way and actually thrashes the issues out. There is a great scene at the end with Margaret and her father after the truth has come out. Margaret is fatalistic, believing that since we're all going to die anyway, there is no point in defining our lives around others. Martin answers that when we confront questions of meaning head on, we find life only makes sense through the expression of love, with Christ's love being the ultimate example.
The performances in The Holly and the Ivy are really good across the board. Ralph Richardson adopts an odd accent for the role, but he sounds very natural and is compelling even at his most doddery. Celia Johnson is a capable match for him, conveying the dilemmas and ultimate happiness of her character while resisting the urge to be melodramatic. Margaret Leighton has great screen presence, being similar in appearance and demeanour to a young Helen Mirren. And Denholm Elliott does very well, even if we're frequently distracted by how fresh-faced he looks.
The Holly and the Ivy is a very underrated Christmas film which definitely deserves a wider audience. Once we have navigated through its silly opening and settled into its theatrical direction, it really opens up as both a weighty and uplifting drama with great dialogue and well-developed characters. On top of that its examination of faith and Christmas traditions are intelligent and open-ended, to leave you with several questions even as you sit there smiling.