I get the impression, every time I happen to read anything related to Hollywood around Christmastime (or, as the politically correct term these days seems to be, ‘the holidays’), that there’s a plethora of Christmas-themed films churned out every year. From comedies to romances to lots of themes that you wouldn’t think really fitted with what is, at its heart, a religious festival, there’s no dearth of Christmas films.
I’ve seen lots of them too, from heart-warming stories about the essence of Christmas to frothy fluff that uses tropes like strategically hung mistletoe and families coming home for Christmas.
On the subject of families coming home for Christmas, The Holly and the Ivy is worth a mention, because this is one of those rare films that are far more real than your run-of-the-mill Christmas film (which might be a reflection of the fact that this is a British film rather than a Hollywood one). The family that gathers here, at the Wyndenham home of an Irish pastor, the Revd Gregory, isn’t exactly a close-knit, blissfully happy lot of people. On the other hand, it’s not a dysfunctional family, no matter what Gregory’s soldier son, Michael ‘Mick’ (Denholm Elliott) might say.
Mick has managed to get 48 hours’ compassionate leave, by telling his major that what with Mick’s mother having passed away in May this year, all the Christmas arrangements have fallen on the shoulders of Mick’s sister—and how will she manage all by herself? He must be there, as brother, to bear his share of the burden.
Not that the sister in question, Jenny (Celia Johnson) seems in much need of help. Jenny, though tired and obviously worn by all the work, goes soldiering on, efficient as ever. Jenny is 31 years old, already an old maid—and she seems destined to end her days here, as quiet and useful Jenny Gregory. Because while she does have a man who loves her and whom she loves as much, she cannot marry him. David Paterson (John Gregson) is an engineer, and is due to leave in a month’s time for South America to build aerodromes there. He will be gone five years.
David are secretly engaged. He wants Jenny to marry him and come with him; but Jenny can’t. Who will look after her father? Ever since her mother died, Jenny is the only one to look after him—and if she leaves, he will be all alone. David asks why a housekeeper can’t be employed, and Jenny says that that isn’t the solution, because nobody truly feels comfortable with a parson. David is forced to agree: yes, just let a clergyman enter a train carriage, and everybody goes silent. It’s as if the clergy are on the outside, not to be truly trusted.
David wonders if Jenny’s younger sister Margaret, who works as a fashion journalist in London, can’t be prevailed upon to take on the task. After all, looking after an elderly father is as much Margaret’s responsibility as it is Jenny’s. But Jenny refuses. When David pushes her to at least talk to Margaret about it, Jenny agrees, though with a certainty that it’s useless.
Frustrated and unhappy, and well aware that Jenny is just as unhappy as he is about this situation, David suggests she tell her father. Revd Martin Gregory is a good man and he loves Jenny dearly; surely he will not want to keep her from marrying David? But Jenny will not have that: she knows that because her father loves her so much, he will sacrifice himself and his needs for her sake. He will insist she leave him and marry David, never mind what it will mean for her father. Don’t even tell him we’re engaged, Jenny pleads with David. She makes him promise, and David reluctantly agrees.
Two aunts of Jenny’s are also arriving at Wyndenham for Christmas. Aunt Lydia (Margaret Halstan) is the sister of Jenny’s late mother. Lydia has been widowed for the past thirty years—she was married for only a few years before her husband died—and has, ever since, been living in hotels. Christmas is the only time she goes to stay with anyone else, and though she is sweet and kindly woman, she’s also, in Jenny’s words (when she tells David about the relatives who’ll be turning up) ‘strange’.
David gets a taste, firsthand, of this strangeness. Left with Lydia for a few minutes, he’s immediately told that he is in love with Jenny, isn’t he? And she with him? You see, I can sense things like that, Lydia insists.
The other aunt, Jenny’s father’s sister Bridget (Maureen Delaney) is a spinster. She is gruff, and almost as soon as she enters the house (she’s arrived along with Lydia—both of them happened to meet at the train station and decided to travel together to Wyndenham), she notices that the Gregory household has ducks. Does this mean they eat duck eggs? Do they expect her to eat duck eggs while she’s here? Don’t they know how bad duck eggs are for the health? She won’t stay here if she has to eat duck eggs… and so on, in the same complaining vein, which Jenny, who obviously has had long experience of this, doesn’t bother to counter but merely listens to with an indulgent smile.
The next person to arrive is another relative, Richard Wyndham (Hugh Williams), who’s driven down from London. Richard is Margaret’s godfather and was supposed to bring Margaret with him. We see, in the beginning of the film, his efforts to track down Margaret to check with her when he should pick her up for the drive down to the vicarage in Wyndenham. He phones her office and is told that Margaret would be at a dress show; he phones there and is told that she’s not turned up, but he could perhaps try her home?
And when he phones Margaret’s rather messy home, the telephone goes on ringing, unanswered… now, in the evening, Richard has arrived all by himself, and explaining the absence of Margaret, says that she isn’t well. Revd Gregory (Ralph Richardson), just back from a nativity play, which he attended as a duty even though he has been feeling giddy and unwell himself, is worried. What’s wrong with Margaret? He’s about to phone her to find out, but Richard stops him, saying that it’s nothing dreadful, and she may be sleeping right now. Let her be.
Even without her having appeared on the scene yet, Margaret is establishing herself as a bit of a maverick. An independent, strong-willed young woman, a fashion journalist at that, who will not come home for Christmas. Who will—even her sister knows this—refuse to give up her own freedom to care for an ailing and lonely father just so that Jenny, already an old maid, can perhaps have a chance at getting married and starting a family before it’s too late.
Little do they know that right then, even as they’re all settling in at the vicarage, Margaret (Margaret Leighton) is on the train, coming to Wyndenham. She hasn’t been home in several years—which is why Jenny was so certain that she wouldn’t agree to leave London to come and look after their father—but now she’s come, and of her own volition.
But Margaret’s arrival at the vicarage is going to turn things topsy-turvy. Because Margaret harbours a secret, the reason for her staying away from Wyndenham all these years. It is a secret right now privy to only one person—her godfather, Richard—of those at Wyndenham. Before Christmas is over, though, that secret will have played havoc with the lives of the Gregory family.
I had not heard of The Holly and the Ivy before I watched it, but it came as a very pleasant surprise. It’s a Christmas story, of course—but a Christmas story for grown-ups. Intelligently and sensitively done, message intact, but not pummelled into one’s head until one can’t think straight.
What I liked about this film:
Everything, really. From the acting to the music, everything fits. The outer trappings of Christmas—all the way from the Christmas goose Jenny is shown basting, to the holly David and Mick help drape, to the carollers singing outside doors—it’s all there. But more importantly, it’s the spirit of Christmas, not the ‘eating and drinking’ and the commercialization of Christmas that is so much a hallmark of much Hollywood Christmas cinema, that prevails.
… and it prevails in a restrained way that develops over the course of the film. Till around the midway mark, the family of The Holly and the Ivy, gathered to celebrate Christmas, don’t come across as a genuinely happy family. They’re not snapping each other’s heads off or being bitchy, but you can see the sadness in the eyes of the longsuffering Jenny, who knows there’s no hope for her; you can get a feel of the rebelliousness of Mick, who feels stifled in this house, even though he pretends to be happy—and even though he comes home willingly. There’s the loneliness of the two aunts, two very different women otherwise but sharing one thing in common: their need to be here, with family, for this festival. And, finally, Margaret, whose secret has pretty much wrecked her life, sending her into seclusion from her siblings and her father, the very people one would have expected her to confide in.
Why these people are so lonely and dissatisfied, why even at Christmas—a ‘magical’ day, as Lydia remembers wistfully from her childhood—they cannot truly find peace, is what The Holly and the Ivy explores so adeptly. The screenplay (by Anatole de Grunwald) is excellent: the characters, their feelings and their motivations come across convincingly and without melodrama. Also, in a well-thought-out way, every dialogue and every interaction, even the relatively minor ones, contribute in some way or the other to the story, or to building up characters.
Best of all, everybody’s very real, very three-dimensional. The woman who hides a shameful secret is not utterly depraved though she seems to be so. The woman who is self-sacrificing and sweet is also resentful and capable of snapping. The clergyman, while a religious man, has the breadth of thought and heart to accept that the very fact of his being a man of the cloth might be coming in the way of people telling him the truth.
Most of all, I loved this film for showing a different side of Christmas, Christianity, and what it means to be truly religious. Not the Bible-thumping evangelistic zeal (or its equivalent in other religions) but a genuine acceptance and warmth. A humanity.
If you’ve had your fill of all your ‘usual’ Christmas films, give The Holly and the Ivy a try. I found a copy online here.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!