Christmas 2 December 2018 | 12:00

Movie Advent #2: The Holly and the Ivy

02 December 2018 12:00

Despite an excellent cast, not to mention all the hallmarks of a thorny family yuletide gathering, George More O’Ferrall’s post-war-set The Holly and the Ivy (1952) isn’t particularly well known. This is a shame, as although perhaps not quite up there with the best of its kind, nevertheless it offers up heartwarming, festive cheer for the deep midwinter.

Adapted from a stage play of the same name – written by Wynyard Browne and which premiered in London’s West End in 1950 – Browne collaborated with the film’s producer Anatole de Grunwald to bring the story to the screen. The film’s theatrical origins are immediately obvious, the vast majority of the action taking place between the four walls of the Norfolk parsonage, where an extended family have assembled to celebrate the holidays. However, the addition of an opening montage of short scenes proves a practical way of providing each of the guests with just enough of a back-story to pique the audience’s interest.

There’s Aunt Lydia (Margaret Halstan), a gentle widow who lives in hotels, but eagerly awaits her brother-in-law’s annual invitation to Christmas; and her counterpart, Aunt Bridget (Maureen Delaney), a plain-speaking, elderly spinster who’s worried about leaving her cat while she’s away at her brother’s house. Meanwhile, Richard Wyndham (Hugh Williams) plays the well-dressed gentleman uncle enjoying a drink with chums at his club before he motors down to the Fen country. Then there are the now grown-up children: the cheeky young son Michael (Denholm Elliott) who, despite being in the middle of his National Service, is hoping for 48-hours leave so he can celebrate with his family; not to mention the elusive youngest daughter Margaret (Margaret Leighton), a fashion journalist with a messy flat, who can’t seem to be found…

Admittedly, all the characters are something of caricatures, not that this makes them any less enjoyable to watch. The two aunts, for example, are both brilliant, and their scenes provide the story with some much needed moments of light relief. Incidentally, both Halstan and Delaney reprised their roles from the original stage play, and I can see why. Each is a gem of a performance, and they play off each other so satisfyingly; the wide-eyed Lydia is a romantic at heart, with a kind word for everyone, while Bridget bustles about the place laying down the law and not putting up with any mischief. Here, as in the story as a whole, each character becomes more three-dimensional in relation to the others around them, the impressive result of some rather understated writing genius.

Decking the halls back in snowy Norfolk, ready for the onslaught, is dutiful daughter Jenny (Celia Johnson). She’s selflessly put her own life on hold to look after her father, the Rev. Martin Gregory (Ralph Richardson), but now she’s fallen in love with a local farmer’s son, David Peterson (John Gregson), an engineer who’s just been offered his dream job building aerodromes in South America, and who’s shipping out at the end of January. Hopefully as a newlywed, if Jenny can be convinced to join him. She says she’ll marry David, but only if Margaret agrees to give up her fast and fashionable London life and come and keep house for their father. David, who’s never met his beloved’s younger sister deems this a perfectly reasonable ask; Jenny, meanwhile, knows it’s a long shot. The fact that she insists on keeping her and David’s romance a secret from her father makes the entire situation all the more complicated, and while it’s easy to admire her altruism – there’s plenty of the same elegantly delivered self-sacrifice that characterises Johnson’s excellent performance as the bored housewife in Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945) – one can’t help but also sympathise with David’s frustration. In these moments, one glimpses shades of Alan McKim, the lead role he’ll play in Genevieve (Henry Cornelius, 1953) the following year, an antique car enthusiast who’s desperately trying to beat his friend in the annual London to Brighton rally.

The keeping of family secrets lies at the heart of this story. As everyone converges on the parsonage on Christmas Eve – last but not least is Margaret who arrives unannounced – tensions run high and long-kept truths – some simply uncomfortable, others rather more tragic – come to light. Margaret, it turns out, isn’t quite the carefree girl about town we’re initially led to believe. As she confesses to Jenny while the sisters are washing and drying the dishes after supper – a scene that’s shot with the most perfect precision by cinematographer Edward Scaife, the women alternatively with their backs to each other – she fell pregnant during the war after an affair with an American airman. He died before the baby was born, so she brought the child up herself, until he died from meningitis earlier this year. The stigma attached to ‘unmarried mothers’ in the late 1940s and early 50s was immense, so although it’ll strike modern audiences as all a little quaint, this would have been quite a shocker at the time. So too, would have been Margaret’s inclination to drink – her and Michael’s subsequent late-night boozing session elicits outrage from the rest of the family. Aunt Bridget is so disgusted that she’s all but set to forgo her Christmas goose and head straight back to London!

Much is made by each of the Reverend’s children that they’ve had to keep things about themselves hidden from him because, as a parson, he’d never understand. As in the earlier scene in the kitchen with the two sisters, a confrontation on Christmas morning between Michael and his father sees familial dysfunction cleverly played out physically, the tinsel-draped Christmas tree a buffer between the two men, obscuring each from the view of the other. His children’s secrets now revealed, the Reverend protests that it’s precisely because he saw the trials and tribulations that constitute human existence that he dedicated his life to the church. Thus, in a way, what looks like a film about religion actually becomes a story of human love, compassion and empathy. Indeed, I read somewhere that the film was initially censored in America because it contained too many characters who claimed not to believe in God! (Though whether this is true, I’m not sure.) Because it’s Christmas though, take heart in the fact that everything is resolved in the end (admittedly in a slightly rushed dénouement), and good tidings are brought to each and every one of this glorious hotchpotch of kin!