The Reverend Martin Gregory (Ralph Richardson) stays in a small, middle class village in Norfolk, but aside from the daughter Jenny (Celia Johnson) who lives with him as essentially his housekeeper, he doesn't get to see his family often now that his wife has passed on. The exception to this is at Christmas, when they gather at his vicarage for the festive season involving presents, a large meal and a trip to church to attend his sermon, but for the past few years, eldest sister Margaret (Margaret Leighton) has not shown up, making her excuses that she is too busy with her metropolitan life to spend time away from the capital. But what if she makes an effort this year?
The Holly and the Ivy started its life as a stage play by Wynyard Browne, one of a great number of similarly told tales of fairly well-to-do folks who suffer some bother or other that would be resolved by the time the curtain came down. He was not the most celebrated of these playwrights, nor was he unsuccessful, and this play in particular became a firm favourite of repertory companies looking for a production around Christmastime to send audiences away with a warm, cosy feeling. Needless to say, this sort of thing was swept away by the Angry Young Men of the nineteen-fifties, as British theatre, and indeed cinema, seemed to change virtually overnight, not that it actually did.
But the rabble-rousing playwrights like John Osborne and his ilk garnered a lot of publicity and made the likes of Terrence Rattigan and Noel Coward look like dinosaurs, meaning it was just as well producer and writer Anatole de Grunwald decided to adapt The Holly and the Ivy into a film before it was relegated to the "Deeply Unfashionable" file. Nevertheless, even those who enjoyed its middlebrow melodrama on the stage were not entirely onboard with the picture as it stood, the director George More O'Ferrall landed with the blame for making a wholly safe and unadventurous piece for the screen, which was never going to be the favourite of critics and the more refined palate.
But really, this approach was perfectly satisfactory for the material, all you needed to do was point the camera at the cast going through their performances to some degree of adequacy and it would succeed as a fine trip to the cinema for most audiences in the Britain of the day. Yet while this sounds rather musty as an entertainment, to dismiss it out of hand would be a mistake; sure, it was dedicated to that Yuletide atmosphere to offset the celebrations of the viewers, and for that reason has generated a cult following after a fashion of those who would prefer a Christmas movie that is not as obvious as certain choices they could make. But there was a tragic element to the storyline that added a depth you might not have expected - this, too, could have been hokey, but there was quality in the acting.
The cast was stuffed with reliables like a turkey was stuffed with sage and onion, yet they were reliable for a reason: they could deliver a good performance that neither patronised nor betrayed the script, or those who had enjoyed it on the stage. Yes, Johnson was visibly too old to be playing her role - or maybe Jenny has been so worn down by her guilt at wanting her own life it has aged her prematurely - and Richardson could essay this sort of bluff old cove in his sleep, but Leighton was where the treasure lay. As we discover, Margaret has been struggling with her life because of a loss that could have been prime soap opera, however she was able to sell it with a careful reading of the character's fragile defences she has buttressed with drink. One of the aunts, Margaret Halstan in what was a signature role for her, reminisces about Christmases past in a manner indicating nostalgia is ever with us, and the present is never as rosy as we would like, but the comfort in honest company is not to be underestimated. Music by Malcolm Arnold, prettily weaving in carols.
[Studio Canal's Blu-ray has two featurettes from film scholars and an audio commentary from same; there's also a stills gallery.