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25 Days of Christmas: The Holly and the Ivy (1952)

When I talk about classic cinema there’s always a defense that comes with it, predominately when it comes for foreign classics. Unfortunately, the presumed pool of people who will buy classics is already small, so why make it more niche by releasing films from other countries? So it’s unsurprising that the few foreign classics that do make their way to DVD and Blu-ray are British (France is also fairly common). This is a round-about way of explaining why The Holly and the Ivy has remained relatively unseen for the last 60-odd years. Newly released on Blu via Kino Lorber, The Holly and the Ivy is a staunchly British story about the nature of family that blends kitchen-sink melodrama with a Christmas message I can’t say I’ve seen in many an optimistic American classic film of the season.

Like most Christmas movies this one involves a disparate family coming home from the holidays, in this case, the Gregorys. Everyone has been doing their own thing in the wake of the family matriarch’s death. Son, Michael (Denholm Elliott) is part of the military, youngest daughter Margaret (Margaret Leighton) has a high-paying job that supplies her with drinking money, and eldest daughter Jenny (Celia Johnson) is engaged in a serious romance that’s threatened by her refusal to leave their father (Ralph Richardson).

The film barely clocks in at 90-minutes so the script, credited to Anatole de Grunwald, doesn’t waste time with pleasantries (although, this being British, everything is rather pleasant). Michael is a ladies man whose leave is threatened, the Gregory’s makeshift godfather, Richard (Hugh Williams) is tasked with finding out if Margaret is coming to dinner, and Jenny is trying to figure out what to do about her boyfriend being sent to sea. Outside of that there are the two family aunts (delightfully played by Margaret Halstan and Maureen Delaney) who have seen different sides of Jenny’s problem. Their individual histories are tightly defined and that allows for everyone’s personality to truly unfold once they get to the family estate.

Though the unity of the family is omnipresent, each character seems to exist in isolation, only telling their story to a select person. Jenny’s relationship with her boyfriend is only known to her nosey aunts, one of whom urges her to go with him while another voices Jenny’s need to care for her father; Margaret is only able to tell her Jenny about the little boy she had out of wedlock who died, forcing her to drink. When Michael finally tells his father, Martin, about what’s going on with both his sisters, it’s to emphasize that the only person kept completely in the dark is Martin himself. But this isolation does lead to an excessive British formality that’s hard to find cuddly. I understand why Ben Mankiewicz, during his intro when this aired on TCM, kept referring to it as “extremely British.”

The authenticity of the performances keeps The Holly and the Ivy from feeling too cold because each actor conveys emotions that always feel real. Maybe because I’ve only seen Brief Encounter (1945), but Celia Johnson plays a similar quiet character with dreams and aspirations that are hindered by familial obligations. Her indecision is represented by her two aunts whom I absolutely loved, particularly Delaney’s Aunt Bridget who is acerbic and to-the-point. I’d like to think I, myself, am an Aunt Bridget. Margaret Leighton’s role as the drunken careerwoman is probably the showiest of the roles as her acting is evident where Johnson’s is all subtlety.

Alongside that, a young Denholm Elliott plays the utterly dashing Michael. He’s introduced being punished, with his leave threatened, but much like most of the problems in this movie that’s solved rather quickly. And then there’s Ralph Richardson as the family patriarch who, if you’ve only seen him play the scheming, gaslighting father in The Heiress you’re missing out. His Pastor Martin is already battling the lack of interest in religion from 1950s parishioners; much like other classic movies focused on religion, this movie never attempts to convert anybody. But what’s harder for him to come to grips with is his own children’s lack of faith in his understanding and empathy. Where other Christmas movies rely on the magic and closeness of the season, The Holly and the Ivy looks at the fears we have being reunited with our family and the need for empathy and an ability to be vulnerable with others.

Kino’s new release doesn’t look just lovely but also includes an in-depth commentary by TCM’s Christmas expert, Jeremy Arnold.

If you’re looking for both a unique Christmas film and a new way to engage in foreign cinema then check out The Holly and the Ivy. This is a subtle, emotionally charged feature.

Ronnie Rating:

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Kristen Lopez View All

A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.

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