The film reminded me a bit of John Huston's wonderful film of James Joyce's The Dead (1987). In both films there's a flurry of activity, cooking and decorating; concerns about one guest who drinks too much; a terrible secret that bubbles to the surface; and a sustained authentic atmosphere, with the movie audience intrigued by the way various characters relate to one another.
Every Christmas the Gregory family, spread across England, return to the remote village of Wyndenham, in Norfolk, where patriarch Martin (Ralph Richardson) serves as the local parson. Widowed and of retirement age, he's looked after by middle-aged daughter Jenny (Celia Johnson), who longs to marry her engineer boyfriend, David (John Gregson), but he's about to be sent off to South America, and she feels bound to stay behind, to care for her aging father.
Gradually, other members of the family arrive. Michael (Denholm Elliott), Martin's son, is in the national service but gets compassionate leave, and has long harbored resentment against his father, believing religion stands in the way of he and his siblings speaking openly and plainly before him. Margaret (Margaret Leighton), is the younger daughter, who works in London as a comparatively glamourous fashion writer, is drinking heavily, on the cusp of alcoholism. Margaret's husband, Richard Wyndham (Hugh Williams), arrives separately, claiming Margaret is at home with the flu, but then Margaret turns up after all.
Also joining the family are the adult children's two elderly, contrasting aunts: Lydia (Margaret Halstan), who is sweet and forthright, if meddlesome; and Bridget (Maureen Delany), a fierce Irishwoman who complains about everything.
Much of the drama revolves around Jenny's dilemma, that she wants to marry David but who'll look after her father? Margaret has her own life in London, while the two aunts appear unwilling to help, they urging Martin to retire. (Spoilers) Meanwhile, Margaret confesses, first to Jenny and later to Michael that, during the war, she'd had an affair with an American soldier killed in action shortly before learning that she was pregnant with his child. She raised the boy in secret, but then, at the age of four, he died of meningitis, hence Margaret's fatalism.
Martin, for his part, complains that his mere presence, in church and around the village, makes his parishioners feel uncomfortable, that they are unable to be themselves, which is exactly what his own children feel. They believe Martin forever judges them through the prism of religion, that he's unable to have a normal father-children relationship with any of them.
The main pleasure of The Holly and the Ivy is watching this story and these relationships gradually unfold and reveal themselves, and both the unexpected little twists that occur, and for the picture's many fine, little moments. In a beautifully acted opening scene, Aunt Lydia is in the lobby of the retirement hotel where she lives, all alone since the death of her sister. The woman at the front desk plays up the hotel's Christmas buffet, but Lydia wants no part of that; she's relied on the yearly invitation she receives to visit the family in Norfolk. But she's concerned that maybe she's not invited this year, and anxiously waits for one in the post. It arrives, and the pleasure it gives her, the assurance that she won't be alone this Christmas after all, is quietly touching.
Just how fine the acting is exemplified by the casting, which works against all odds. Celia Johnson is playing a character 31 years old, but she was actually 44 and looks 55. She and Margaret Leighton don't even look distantly related, let alone sisters, and Ralph Richardson, then barely 50, doesn't look the part of a 70-something parson. Yet, because their performances are all so richly textured, suspension of disbelief comes easy. (Richardson is very good in the final scenes but a little broad early on; one wishes he had played the role again when he was the correct age.) Celia Johnson especially comes off as thoroughly real: her Jenny goes about her business, cooking and decorating, and helping her father ready for his sermon, as if she's been doing it all her life. Her reactions to so much disappointment is never extreme, always subtle yet truthfully expressed. Margret Halstan had with Maureen Delaney appeared in the stage version, roles they'd reprise for a British TV adaptation three years later. Halstan's other film work is scattershot and minor, yet her performance here is unforgettable.
Video & Audio
Presented in its original black-and-white and standard 1.37:1 ratio, The Holly and the Ivy looks good on Blu-ray, if a notch below other similar recent releases like The Man Between. This is slightly softer with weaker blacks, but the transfer is generally good. The DTS-HD Master Audio (mono) is fine with optional English subtitles included, and the disc region "A" encoded.
The lone supplement is an audio commentary track, by film historian Jeremy Arnold.
An excellent, unjustly unknown film, at least in the U.S., The Holly and the Ivy is a must for Christmastime, and Highly Recommended.