Bright Lights Film Journal

Home Is Not Just for Christmas … or Thanksgiving … or Middle-Class Chaps, However Decent

Ralph Richardson and Denholm Elliott in The Holly and the Ivy

To be clear, The Holly and the Ivy is not mistakable for a lost gem from Renoir or Mizoguchi. Yet it does make the most of a story told “in real time” – a lifelike dramatic structure which would have certainly got the nod from Aristotle. So, in an admittedly subtle rather than overtly pulsating British film, there’s a real sense of repressed social realities belatedly and – all the more urgently – being addressed.

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The Holly and the Ivy is a British film made from Wynyard Browne’s play by George More O’Ferrall. The year of production was 1952 – or, in a now defunct cliché, “nineteen hundred and frozen-to-death.” Among theatre and movie conventions, plots where families gather together to wash their dirty linen are, in one sense, timeless – especially if we widen the definition here to include the ancient Greeks. The horror of stumbling blindly into family-destroying evil is at the heart of all Greek tragedy.

In the middle of the 20th century, bringing out our postwar dead – or rather the dead dreams of those still living – interested playwrights on both sides of the Atlantic. Staying surprisingly close to the ancient Greeks, the theme was often set in a “disturbed” family group.

The underlying need was to move on from the war and its aftermath via something more than a nostalgia for the good old days. So Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Terence Rattigan and even Noel Coward were not just seeking a bums-on-seats resonance or heartfelt poignancy, but catharsis.

The problem for film was – still is – to home in on things without losing the capacity for multiple viewpoints – the space-time hopping which, in theory, even the most avant garde of theatre productions can’t hope to match.

In fact, this area of challenge has often elicited the stubborn creativity of many an “arty” film and theatre director. Resisting studio pressures and lugging heavy sound cameras to locations in and out of town, Renoir in France and Mizoguchi in Japan spent most of the 1930s squaring this circle: closing in tightly on domestic scenes while at the same time revelling in a richly diversified poetic allusiveness, built – in essence, very simply – from location work and astute editing. Not coincidentally, these achievements came from two fine cinema artists with a taut awareness of and respect for theatre traditions.

To be clear, The Holly and the Ivy is not mistakable for a lost gem from Renoir or Mizoguchi. Yet it does make the most of a story told “in real time” – a lifelike dramatic structure which would have certainly got the nod from Aristotle. So, in an admittedly subtle rather than overtly pulsating British film, there’s a real sense of repressed social realities belatedly and – all the more urgently – being addressed.

Among these, of most moral and dramatic significance is the miserable plight of the “unmarried mother.” Some of us oldies will realise the phrase has, thankfully, become next-to-meaningless for our own grown-up children. This is because, married or not, they can, without censure, raise their own families. (Of course, the issue of actually wanting a family remains, as well as the physical ability to have one. Also, there are still problems for unmarried couples who seek to adopt. So there’s no absolutely no shortage of modern difficulties.)

Sir Ralph Richardson (Rev. Martin Gregory) and Margaret Leighton (Margaret Gregory)

Meanwhile in 1952, though essentially pre-war values would turn out to be tottering on the brink of extinction, the shame of bearing a child “out of wedlock” was still very intense. In fact, it was so fearfully strong that, to avoid being consigned forever to a mental asylum with a diagnosis of “moral depravity,” working-class women especially were driven to desperate subterfuges, including posing as the child’s “sister.” Forced adoption was another, more genteel tactic favoured by those trying to keep society free of nymphomaniac temptresses.

For a deeply serious contemporary study of nymphomania seen – among other things – as a life-threatening addiction, I’m with those who admired Lars Von Trier’s back-to-back films on the subject last year. Even now, to “like” any of his films is virtually a contradiction in terms. Nevertheless, for me, Von Trier has finally made an unlikely-looking transition from horribly erratic enfant terrible to deeply challenging moralist while still remaining (yes, of course it’s possible) the same awkward enfant terrible.

In The Holly and the Ivy, immediately alerted to her alcoholism, we slowly learn some shocking truths about Margaret Gregory. And if you need to cross too many generations of shifting cinematic and social values in order to feel at all startled here, you could do a lot worse than think Von Trier.

Margaret Gregory (foreground), drunk

So, in spite of being a nicely dressed, well-spoken, beautiful woman – the younger daughter of a vicar, no less – she drinks too much for some rather disturbing reasons. As she explains to her indecisive but sympathetic brother, on-leave serviceman Michael (Denholm Elliott) after a few years as an unmarried mother, her American lover having died in the war, she also lost the child – to meningitis. The fact that she was managing her situation without drink – at least up to the point of the child’s death – isn’t explored. But for contemporary viewers, the persona of “brave war widow” would perhaps have sprung forgivingly to mind.

Nonetheless, while the child was alive she could not face the possibility of forced adoption, which she clearly infers would have been insisted on by her two aunts (wonderfully contrasting figures played by Margaret Halstan and Maureen Delany) as well as by her father and big sister, Jenny (Celia Johnson). Until very recently, then, she couldn’t have come home, even if she wanted to; meanwhile she knew nothing till now of her sister’s own dilemma: marry and go with her new husband to his new job abroad; or stay – unmarried and childless – at the vicarage.

Apart from its distance in time, The Holly and the Ivy could have been lumbered with yet another handicap: that of becoming yet another mediocre melodrama with nothing to savour but exaggerated emotional responses to nakedly contrived twists of the plot. This, of course, was a great era not just for noir but also for the direst of potboilers. Certainly the denouement isn’t the most convincing we’ll ever see; but, yes, in the end Margaret – thanks mainly to a well-realised rapprochement with her father – will give up the booze and look after Dad, allowing Jenny her chance at (legitimate) motherhood.

What remains in the mind, in fact, are the many stunningly well-acted scenes from a brilliantly well-cast ensemble. Among them, I’ve been singling out Margaret Leighton’s glamourous but fragile victim of rigid morality. But structurally at least, it’s Ralph Richardson around whose character everything revolves. However, he is not just the bemused, unconsciously selfish priest/paterfamilias of the blurb. Not only is he unaware of the price his overprotective children have been paying for his selfless devotion to the parish; he himself is also trapped by a rapidly changing world order. This brave new world, hovering in the dead of winter before it strikes forward, who knows in which direction, is one in which his very profession – as if for the first time – is under serious threat. In fact, as he sees it, every member of his flock takes him to be either too familiarly insistent or too condescendingly distant. So he is actually suffering more from a crisis of personal identity than from one involving tenets of faith, interconnected though these problems obviously are.

Jenny Gregory (Celia Johnson) and Rev. Martin

One could add that he’s also suffering some of the less than consoling mental and physical accompaniments of old age. Despite being not quite fifty years old at the time, Richardson gets all this across with total credibility. And if there’s anything to complain of, for me it would be a very trivial point about the odd whiteness of his hair. However, even in the modern era, makeup departments can still find it difficult to age people so that we see absolutely nothing distractingly fake. On the other hand, like many other so-called secondary aspects of filmmaking, it’s often because these backroom skills are so well honed that, unless we make a special effort, we don’t consciously see them at all.

This leads me again to fear that, despite recent IMDb ratings, the moral and emotional power of The Holly and the Ivy isn’t “extreme” enough to reach beyond people of my own age. Addressing them directly, I’d just say this. While The Holly and the Ivy is nowhere near as emotionally hot and cold as Nymphomaniac, it does contain not just its own real patches of frost but even, at some generically invisible level, its own black ice.