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PEACE ON EARTH - BUT NOT IN THE VICARAGE
on 11 August 2010
Well, I'd never seen this - but I'm delighted to say that the gap has now been filled. For all those who think that the ultimate Christmas films are IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE and WHITE CHRISTMAS, take a look at this remarkable and uplifting tale of a country parson, and revel in the sheer quality of the writing, the directing, and the superlative performances from a five-star cast.
The script is faithfully and carefully distilled from a successful stage play of the 1950s - but the adaptation has none of that cardboard quality that is sometimes a pitfall of putting theatre onto the screen.
Celia Johnson, Ralph Richardson, Margaret Leighton, a young Denholm Elliott, and a supporting cast of remarkable talent unfold this bittersweet but ultimately joyous story set in the claustrophobic confines of a country vicarage.
The bells ring for Christmas, the carol singers trill, the goose is basted - and the world is bathed in white and silence. On the surface all is love and goodwill, but relations between the vicar and his grown-up children are stretched to breaking-point. Two sisters and a younger brother are convinced that their father cannot or will not understand their very different needs and wants, and they in turn have made little or no attempt to allow for the sacrifices that have to be made by someone with a calling to the priesthood.
Distressing little domestic incidents occur during the course of an evening - incidents which trigger major changes within the family, bringing out the weaknesses and ultimate strengths of each of the players in turn.
There is a remarkable scene (which for me makes the film worth every penny of its reasonable price) in which Celia Johnson and Margaret Leighton - the vicar's daughters - do nothing more complex than wash up the supper things.
These two sisters with such very different lifestyles talk to each other, probably for the first time in their lives - and there is an almost tangible void between them.
As the void begins to close, surprising and unhappy details of their lives emerge, details that are shocking for the period of the film, and the scene is played for all it's worth in a single very lengthy shot, with no action more vigorous than the drying of a plate or the rinsing of a cup. It's riveting stuff. The immaculate timing and perfectly clipped English of these two extraordinary actresses serve only to emphasise the poignancy of the whole situation, and the viewer can't help but be moved to tears by it.
(Young actors wanting to play 'period' roles should study work like this very carefully. They seldom manage anything half so good, and could learn an enormous amount about manner, movement - and diction.)
THE HOLLY AND THE IVY is justifiably a classic - though perhaps not as famous as it should be. This lovely release on DVD should go some way towards remedying that.
It's not just a film for Christmas: like Shakespeare, it's for all time - and you can't say fairer than that.