“We just want to make sure you understand that, as your parents, we are not to blame. Clearly it’s not your fault either.”
For months I’ve been feeding off the buzz for the new dark Christmas comedy, Silent Night. A Christmas tale that doubles as a doomsday movie, the poor folks at Fantastic Fest probably never knew what hit them. Some of my colleagues in attendance loved the film, while others outright loathed it and a few enjoyed it enough even though they said it made them incredibly depressed. In a way, it’s unfair for anyone to go into Silent Night blind- unfair for both the film and the audience. Quite honestly, if ever there was a case to be made for the usefulness of trailers, it’s Silent Night. Don’t misunderstand, Camille Griffin’s feature writing/directing debut is a great film that is the perfect blend of dark comedy, Christmas trappings and moments of touching sentimentality. Still, for the majority of American audiences hung up on likability and the warm fuzzies, Silent Night will not be for them. By contrast, those who do respond well to it will no doubt feel they have found one of their new favorite holiday titles.
In Silent Night, Nell (Keira Knightley), Simon (Matthew Goode) and their children Art (Roman Griffin Davis), Hardy (Gilby Griffin Davis) and Thomas (Hardy Griffin Davis) are getting ready to welcome their extended family for a Christmas celebration at their home in the English countryside. Among the guests are Sandra (Annabelle Wallis), her husband Tony (Rufus Jones), their daughter Kitty (Davida McKenzie), James (Sope Dirisu), his girlfriend Sophie (Lily Rose-Depp), Bella (Lucy Punch) and her girlfriend Alex (Kirby Howell- Baptiste). It doesn’t take long for the gifts, food and traditional merriment to give way to something much more serious. Apparently there’s a deadly gas traveling throughout the country that’s killing everything in its tracks. Because of this, the government has issued suicide pills that will allow people to die before the gas reaches them, ensuring this will indeed be a last Christmas.
Silent Night is a dark comedy and works as well as it does because it never forgets this fact. The film is an exercise in the kind of offbeat British humor which hasn’t always traveled well, but succeeds by choosing to find hilarity in the morose and oftentimes tragic. If the humor doesn’t usually align with the kind of stateside comedies most American audiences are drawn to, the laughs are nonetheless there. The level of comedy has already been set by the time the group sits down to dinner and it’s revealed that because of the situation, there’s only one roasted potato (a staple of any British dinner) allowed per person. As everyone tries to come to terms with this, the whole crowd suddenly stops as they notice American Sophie swallow her potato in one bite leaving the others aghast. It may seem trivial, but it sets the tone for the kind of laughter that carries this oddball comedy. Other standout jokes include Nell acting out The Day After Tomorrow during a game of charades and Kitty unwrapping a doll that’s dressed just like her, which causes Sandra to wince. When the end finally does come, Silent Night still doesn’t pull back on the black comedy. An extended sequence sees a frustrated Simon having to go back downstairs for various items at the behest of his family at the moment when they should be preparing their final goodbyes. Just as funny is Tony and Sandra’s final conversation in which he asks his wife: “Am I boring?” With a tearful, loving look in her eyes, she responds: “You’re so much more than that.”
An ensemble of this size means that the character moments aren’t as plentiful as we would like for them to be. Still, they’re there. While the characters in Silent Night don’t shy away from embracing their respective stereotypes, there’s something which happens at the beginning of the second half which allows for the shedding of both them and the finely tuned rapport within the group. What results from this are various truths and vulnerabilities which these longtime friends finally allow themselves to embrace. It’s a turning point in the film which shows that underneath all the gallows humor, there is actual human emotion. It’s surprising just how much that emotion grows scene after scene. The zoom call Nell, Simon and the boys place to say goodbye to their grandmother (Trudie Styler) and the montage featuring each character’s final moments prove deceptively moving. What makes these scenes so touching is perhaps the company. There’s true poignancy about who you choose to spend your last hours with, a notion which this film realizes. For these lifelong friends, it’s not far off to suggest they chose to be with each other as a reminder of a time in each of their lives when they were at their happiest and life made sense. In more than a few ways, Silent Night is actually the perfect echo of the more precarious months of 2020, those days when the news was growing more and more dire by the day and there was no hope was in sight. As in the film, the challenge then was to accept the reality of the world outside and still cling to whatever form of joy was around for however long we could.
Knightley’s participation in this seems especially noteworthy given how drawn she is to period pieces. Make no mistake though, the actress is so great at the level of comedy the film demands of her, with the dinner prayer scene being her finest comedic moment. Goode plays more the straight man within the group but still earns his own share of laughs while Griffin Davis proves to be film’s standout performance, echoing many of the questions popping into the audience’s heads. While the rest of the guests all excel and are each given their own laughs, it’s Wallis as the self-involved Sandra who is the scene stealer. The way she perfectly plays her character’s bitchiness before unveiling a hint of vulnerability is a treat to watch.
While praise must be given to Griffin for making such a tight, self-contained film with no fat to trim in its 90 minutes, I couldn’t help but wish for some greater character expansion. Each of the men and women in Silent Night are diverting enough as they are, but more time with them was very much desired
There’s been an anti-science argument labeled towards Silent Night that feels totally unwarranted. Mainly the argument stems from certain characters questioning the specifics of the situation they’re in. Even though that argument proved infuriatingly true for this past summer’s Old, here it feels little more than an effect of the current division within society. What the film actually is, is an anti-government comment on the all-too-powerful class system which has dominated Britain for ages. Even so, Silent Night is less of an agenda film than it is an exercise in gallows humor that will also serve as a truly cathartic experience for some special few. In a way, American audiences may be simultaneously too sensitive and cynical for this movie. Some who watch it may choose to forget it. Personally, I can’t wait to experience it again.