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The Forgotten: Festen

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"One theory is, it goes back to the days when they were making the calendar. They put in the extra days between the lunar and the solar year, and when they put them in, they felt they were queer sort of days, that they didn't really exist. Days on which anything might happen."

"How strange. I used to feel like that about Christmas when I was a child. I remember how wonderful it was, seeing the snow outside, finding our Christmas stockings tied to the ends of our beds, and all day long a strange sort of excitement. And then, in the evening, downstairs in the drawing room, dark, green and glittering, the Christmas tree. Somehow Christmas never seems quite the same now. As one gets older, the magic seems to go out of things."

It is axiomatic (well, it is now I've said it, or am about to) that a good Christmas movie must embrace the bleak midwinter, the feelings of disaffection, melancholy, loneliness and despair that come with the dying of the sun and the command to be merry. A good Christmas movie needs a bit of suicidal despair. There's The Apartment (1960, sleeping pills) and The Shop Around the Corner (1940, revolver), and most famously there's It's a Wonderful Life (1946, night plunge into icy river), the movie that finally tackles head-on the suicide theme Capra grappled with throughout his career, and answers successfully, in narrative terms, the question that seems to have vexed him: why not?

"Your gardens of the dead are here tonight with a vengeance, Jenny. It's like walking on the surface of the moon."

The Holly and the Ivy (1952, adapted by Anatole de Grunewald from Wynyard  Browne's...what? Play, presumably. The credits are unforthcoming) doesn't quite plumb the depths that would lead someone to self-extinction, but it gets close enough to make me feel all warm and festive. Into a too-short eighty minutes it packs illegitimate birth, child mortality, alcoholism, existential despair and the bitterness of old age and wasted years. Egg nog, anyone?

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It also has: (1) a beautiful recreation of a nativity play, where they've resisted the temptation to improve on the kiddies' acting, so we get wonderfully crammed compositions, bursting with amateurishness and weird line readings from the distracted children, who are all off in their own little worlds, and realistic line flubs, e.g.: "My prayerells are answered." (2) Lots of snow, crackling log fires, and decorations, which prove just the things to set off the angst to perfection. (3) A splendid cast, whose reassuring familiarity to a British movie-lover produces a warm fug of nostalgia conducive to the holiday spirit.

The village parson (Ralph Richardson, his voice rumbling with yuletide solemnity and eccentric wisdom) is joined for the holiday by his children, and all the skeletons come tumbling out of the closet in a jolly Dance of Death. In this semi-progressive, semi-conservative movie compromise, the value of religion and family are questioned, only to be affirmed, and we get our hope back at the end (although the haste of the conclusion is a little unsatisfying, as if someone couldn't quite believe the optimistic conclusion, and felt they'd better get it over with quickly).

The director is George More O'Ferrall (The Heart of the Matter, 1953), perhaps the first British director to graduate from television (he made a version of Anna Christie for the box in 1936!), and he does a decent job, helped by the literate script and a stunning cast. The rest of this piece shall be an enumeration of their many virtues.

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After Richardson, essaying an Irish accent and otherwise being his own splendid mad self, we have his brother, Hugh Williams. Williams played caddish adventurers in the thirties, a blur of hair oil and pencil moustache. He had the shortest stab at a Hollywood career on record: British leading men just weren't handsome enough, even for the thirties. The ones who made it in Hollywood made it instantly, without bothering about British films at all. Now he's middle-aged and sadder, stouter and gray haired and the years of failure or anyhow lack of giddy-making success hang heavy on him, which works for the role. Asked by his god-daughter if he believes in God, he can't even fake an instant of faith for her benefit.

The sisters, spinster and widow, are Margaret Halstan and Maureen Delany, neither of whom I'd seen before. They're both excellent, but one of the pleasures of this kind of British film is the familiar faces: William Hartnell gets two scenes as a sergeant major and I'm in heaven! And here's Roland Culver as a Lord in a gentleman's club. Bliss!

It's the adult children who have the best roles, though. Celia Johnson is the homebody who can't bear to get married because she doesn't see how her unworldly, ailing father will cope (Richardson must have been a very enterprising six-year-old to father her), and the vulnerability and pluck deployed in Brief Encounter are much to the fore.

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The ne'er-do-well son is Denholm Elliott, who made a minor career out of playing Ralph Richardson's son (see also The Sound Barrier, 1952). There's something very Christmassy about Denholm Elliott, don't ask me why. I suppose it's his air of seediness and furtive concealment.

The daughter, who arrives late, trailing clouds of backstory, is Margaret Leighton, she of the tremulous, slurring voice. I'm used to Margaret as a grande dame (for instance, as Henry Fonda's frostily estranged wife in The Best Man, 1964) and I'm not sure I can handle seeing her young and fanciable without experiencing some new kind of erotic dissonance, but fortunately Margaret at age thirty is every bit as grand and frosty as she would be later. "Why do you have to crackle so, like ice?" asks Celia, and we marvel at the aptness of the casting. And then Margaret answers the question, and everything gets horrible.

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"It began with feeling, of course, but feeling soon exhausts itself. You can't feel even grief forever."

"Grief leaves an emptiness, there's always a blankness..."

"Yes: I know, but it's not that. It's something far bigger than that. It's...it's as though, in that blankness, I had suddenly stumbled on something that affects everyone. Everyone in the world. Well look, listen: Robert was killed. I really did love him, you know. And after that, I found I was going to have Simon, well that seemed important. Because, not only because of Robert, but another life in the world is...important, so for the next four years I did everything I possibly could for Simon. Well then, he died. And I just felt, well, what's the point, of it all. What was the value of all that effort? Don't you see? It was then that I first began to realize that, in the end, It's the same for everyone. Practically all the efforts that people make are simply to keep life going, well their own or somebody else's, and the whole thing's doomed to failure, we know that. Life can't be kept going indefinitely, with the sun's growing cold and in the end the human race'll be frozen off the Earth, well what sense does that make?"

There are two really memorable bits of direction (memorable? Alright, I watched it two hours ago. What I mean is, they struck me as good) involving Margaret, and the first is when she explains her life to Celia. O'Ferrall has her give the tragic revelations with her back to the camera, her head framed by the window with falling snow outside. When Celia hears about her sister's secret baby, her face lights up, and when she hears the child died, we see nothing from Margaret, but everything reflected in Celia (and Celia can really do pained: she has more expressions for pain than the Eskimos are supposed to for snow). Then Margaret turns, smiles dismissively, and takes a drag on her cigarette. It's a wet slap of shock, and a perfect crystalized encapsulation of how many of us handle pain that's too deep to express.

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Later, a drunk scene (Elliott gets one also, but Leighton astonishes by outdoing the master of dissipation): Leighton stares at her assembled family as if they all had two heads. A POV shot, taken from floor level: a masterful evocation of the dislocation she feels. But only somewhat: she collapses seconds later, into that shot, and we realize it was taken for that purpose, O'Ferrall was too cheap or too careless to shoot a proper POV shot, and editor Bert Bates (who worked with Hitchcock, Powell, Reed, but never on their best work) was forced to make the drop-shot do double duty. Whatever, the effect is striking, nice.

"Looks like we're in for a jolly evening: two more hours of cosy yuletide. Can't you feel it closing in on us?"

I respect the filmmakers for delving into the darker side of Christmas, and if they can't entirely find their way back to the light, they do illuminate the value of compassion and tolerance. You may be lonely: but you are not alone.

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The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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