The Holly and the Ivy (1952)

The Holly and the Ivy is a black and white British movie about a dysfunctional family coming together at Christmas to work out their differences. It's adapted from a stage play, which is fairly obvious watching the film: it's almost entirely set in a single building, and the dialogue is, well, actually good.

Like many plays, this is less driven by plot than by character interaction. Almost everyone's got a secret, and it all comes out as they talk to each other. Fortunately, the script has some solid characters, and the cast does good work.

The closest the movie comes to a main character is Jenny, a woman looking after her father, a parson with an academic mind. Unbeknownst to her father, Jenny wants to marry her boyfriend, but he's about to move to South America for work. She's unwilling to abandon her father, since he's got no one else to look after him.

Also in the mix is her younger sister, Margaret, who's harboring quite the secret backstory. Five years earlier, she had an affair with a soldier, who subsequently died. Without telling her father, she gave birth to a child, who eventually died from disease. As a result, she's understandably depressed.

Credit where it's due: the movie in no way judges her or dismisses her experiences. She's introduced as shaken and awkward, and the reveal is there to humanize her. When she explains what she's been through, the audience is expected to both empathize with her struggles and understand why she's kept this from her father. She outright states that she believes he'd see this as a moral issue, while she does not.

Incidentally, this is also the crux of Jenny's story. She can't get married unless Margaret agrees to move back in with their father, but the idea of pretending to be someone she's not horrifies Margaret.

Their brother, Michael, appears as well. He's harboring quite a few issues with his father, who expects him to live a more virtuous life. The idea that men should go into religion or the military is introduced early in the film, and Michael's story mostly feels like a repudiation of that idea.

Also present are two elderly aunts, one a sarcastic spinster and the other a jovial, upbeat widow. They're easily the most fun aspect of the movie and interject most of the comedy. Despite having polar opposite personalities, they're consistently on good terms. And, contrary to their comedic appearance, the movie paints them as wise and insightful.

The movie ends on Christmas when people talk to each other. And... it all feels anti-climactic. Margaret talks to her father about her life and discovers he's more sympathetic and less judgmental than she'd expected. He, in turn, realizes he's failed to convey compassion and sympathy to his children and has instead shown them only a stringent, moralizing version of his faith and his outlook. But now that Margaret's told her father everything and been accepted, she's happy to move back home, so Jenny can marry her boyfriend and move to South America.

When the words "The End" appeared on the screen, I honestly blinked in disbelief. I'd have sworn there was another act coming, maybe some sort of twist. The "happily-ever-after" resolution felt unearned - something bleaker would have seemed more honest.

The title references the Christmas carol about a contest between the holly and ivy, which - and this is all spelled out in the film - is believed to be about a battle between the sexes. In the context of the movie, this plays out more as a generational shift from a patriarchal worldview to a more modernized one. And, somewhat surprisingly, it includes a fairly unambiguous critique of outdated religious moralizing. It stops short of dismissing religion altogether, but at its core, the movie is fairly upfront about endorsing a more progressive religious outlook.

Thematically, I really like what this was doing, and I found most of the characters interesting enough. However, the movie still left me underwhelmed, and not just because the ending felt rushed. Overall, this felt like a small story, but - aside from some really good moments around Margaret - not a particularly deep or touching one. It had a point to make, and it made it competently... but it didn't extend itself beyond that. The characters were good, but they weren't amazing. It was neither a hilarious comedy nor a heart-wrenching drama.

It was, at the end of the day, a decent enough movie with some really solid themes, but there's not enough to really make it stand out.


  1. Sorry no car chase. But the characters and story are completely believable and the best acting you’ll ever see. The writing and story are succinct and doesn’t suggest ideas that it never gets back to… like most modern films. It’s about being a human being; inner lives; our hopes and fears.


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