George More O’Ferrall (director)
02 December 2019 (released)
12 December 2019
This newly restored British domestic drama from 1952 – adapted from the play by Wynyard Browne – is set amid the austere atmosphere of post-war Britain and focuses on a family gathering over Christmas, with some of the characters facing up to a bit of home truth.
To be more precise, the family in question are the Gregsons, lead by widowed patriarch Martin Gregson (Ralph Richardson) who also happens to be the local Parson… looking after his ‘flock of sheep’ in the tiny and remote village of Wyndenham in Norfolk. Only his thirty-something daughter Jenny (Celia Johnson) still lives at home – a goody-goody-two-shoes who has made it her duty to look after her ageing father whose various ailments seem to get the better of him. Trouble is, Jenny is secretly in love with engineer David (John Gregson) and he hopes to marry her before he’s off to South America for his job. His best efforts to make Jenny come along with him still leave her more than hesitant because she can’t think of anyone else to look after her father and the vicarage, seeing how none of the other Gregson family members live in Wyndenham.
Tradition has it that every year they all return to the parsonage to celebrate Christmas with father. It’s no different this year although as it turns out it will be a Christmas to remember for very different reasons. First up is eternally bickering Irish Aunt Bridget, a fire-and-brimstone character who made the same mistake as Jenny seems to make, namely looking after a parent and by doing so missing out on life. In short, years of looking after her ill mother have left Bridget a lonely spinster. Now an old woman herself, she only has her beloved cat for company and initially refuses to board a train to Wyndenham until her neighbour promises to look after the feline. Then there is Martin’s son Michael (Denholm Elliott), a sceptic and cynic when it comes to religious matters and who feels he cannot have a proper conversation with his father, who apparently cares a lot more about his parishioners. A national serviceman in the Army, he has to come up with a bunch of fibs in order to get ‘compassionate leave following the death of a family member’ when in fact he simply just wants go home for Christmas (one wonders why though). Martin’s younger daughter Margaret (Margaret Leighton) entertains similar ideas when it comes to faith. Outwardly a seemingly fulfilled person who leads a glamorous lifestyle in London thanks to her work as a fashion writer, she is in fact a deeply unhappy person following the tragic death of a US-soldier who got killed in the war and whom she loved, leaving her pregnant with a son who, aged four, died of meningitis. The experience has left her a bitter person who seeks solace in alcohol though so far she has managed to keep all her secrets from her father and the others. Only family friend Richard Wyndham (Hugh Williams), who also lives and works in London, knows about Margaret’s unhappiness and her problems with drink.
Now it’s Christmas Eve and one after another arrive at the Gregson household including cantankerous Aunt Bridget and the much more gentle and good-hearted Aunt Lydia (Margaret Halstan). Oblivious to the fact that Jenny and David are deeply in love, and with Jenny trying her best not to display any affection in front of others, both aunts immediately suss what’s really going on, giving Jenny the advise not to make the same mistake as they did and follow her heart, not her sense of duty towards her father. Nonetheless Jenny insists on staying, as there won’t be anyone else to look after him. When the two aunts causally remark to Martin that it might be time to retire he won’t have any of it. The doorbell rings and son Michael arrives though it becomes evident he has a strained relationship with his father. Then family friend Richard Wyndham also arrives. Only Margaret is still missing, with Richard lying she won’t be coming to the gathering due to a sudden onset of flu. The truth is somewhat different: Margaret feels she cannot keep up a façade in front of other family members and doesn’t fancy a Christmas full of pretence. At the last minute she has a change of heart, however, and takes a train to Wyndenham. Everyone, especially her father, is delighted to see her, only Jenny senses Margaret’s deep unhappiness.
Sure enough, as the others busy themselves to decorate the place with holly and ivy while Parson Martin reads from a book the ancient significance of the two plants, Michael and Margaret head off to the local cinema for a late movie – or so they say. In truth both fancy a drink in the local pub (especially Margaret) and return home intoxicated that night, creating tension and unease in the Gregson household. The next morning it’s Christmas Day and Margaret decides to pack and leave while Michael has an argument with his father, accusing him of not understanding his children or ‘earthly’ matters’, only spiritual ones. He then reveals the trouble Margaret is in and the reasons why. Shattered and shocked, Parson Martin replies that he does understand earthly matters only too well; after all, they are the very reason why he decided to become a Parson in the first place. The father-to-son conversation leads to a much-needed reconciliation, and just as Margaret is on her way out, Martin says he knows what’s been happening in her life and there is no longer any reason for her to keep up the façade. Margaret confesses that she’s not happy in London with her boring friends and her lifestyle and would like to move back home. That’s handy, for it means Jenny is now free to marry David and go with him to South America. Just as the entire family assemble for Christmas mass in church, a newly found harmony and understanding is bestowed upon the Gregsons.
THE HOLLY AND THE IVY is not as syrupy as it may sound (though it may hold appeal for an older generation) as it touches on timeless topics: the misunderstandings between the older and the younger generation, Christianity versus atheism, and the prejudice some children (in this case son Michael and daughter Margaret) have towards their father (in this case a man of the cloth), while in turn, he (like most parents) only ever wants to see the best in his children and thus partially falls blind to an important thing called the ‘human condition’. Performances are outstanding, especially Ralph Richardson, Denholm Elliott and Celia Johnson.
This gorgeously restored Blu-ray edition furthermore contains various Bonus Features.