Holiday Classics: “The Holly and the Ivy” (1952)

The Holly and the Ivy” centers around a dysfunctional family gathering for the holidays, but while many movies play this concept for laughs, this 1952 British film directed by George More O’Ferrall from a play by Wynyard Browne is a melancholy drama. But that doesn’t mean that the film doesn’t end with the requisite dose of hope and reconciliation necessary to make it a great, if underrated, Christmas movie.

The focus of “The Holly and the Ivy” is the Gregory family. Reverend Martin Gregory (Ralph Richardson) is a minister in a small town in the English countryside. He is widowed, and has three adult children; one of them, Jenny (Celia Johnson) lives with and cares for her frail father, even though she is sacrificing her own chance at happiness—her secret boyfriend is about to leave for a job in South America and wants her to accompany him—to do so. Meanwhile, sister Margaret (Margaret Leighton), a magazine writer in London, and brother Michael (Denholm Elliott), are arriving home for the holidays, and they all have their own issues. Margaret is an alcoholic and has a massive secret that I won’t spoil here, while Michael is currently serving in the army but doesn’t know how to tell his father that he doesn’t want to attend college at Cambridge after his stint is over. All three siblings view their father as so devoted to religion and his church that they can’t approach him with their problems, afraid that he will either disapprove or not understand, not realizing that he has spent his entire career helping others with similar issues.

Ralph Richardson and Margaret Leighton in “The Holly and the Ivy”

“The Holly and the Ivy” is a fairly talky movie—it is based on a play, after all—but the script and performances are so absorbing that any lack of cinematic flair is forgivable. Much of the cast may not be recognizable to those who aren’t familiar with British theatre and film, although many classic film fans will likely know Celia Johnson thanks to her role in the acclaimed 1945 romantic drama “Brief Encounter” (an interesting aside: Johnson married the brother of James Bond author Ian Fleming, and their daughters took charge of the Fleming estate). And the film is filled with lovely music and sets that are appropriate for the holiday, from the strains of the song the title is drawn from that play over the opening credits, to scenes of the characters engaging in the usual holiday traditions, like decorating the tree. The main thing that sets “The Holly and the Ivy” aside from other films in its depiction of these events is that the characters don’t seem to particularly enjoy Christmas, even the Reverend; they all view it as something they have to get through, and the Reverend in particular appears discouraged that so many of his parishioners seem to have lost sight of the true meaning of the holiday.

“The Holly and the Ivy” is somber and nostalgic enough that you may need to be in the right mood to watch it, but it is well worth watching for its performances, the frankness with which it confronts some serious topics, and its moving portrayal of how a holiday gathering can prompt a family to come together and open up to each other.

Runtime: 80 minutes.

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