Let’s crack open the fizz this Christmas and raise a toast to good times, old times…end times?
In writer-director Camille Griffin’s debut Silent Night, it’s a familiar festive scene as old school friends reunite at Christmas. We know the formula well: Richard Curtis-esque sweary exchanges, Michael Bublé jingles, wails of Where’s the sticky toffee pudding? The gang is a little older now (non-wiser), with their bratty children and significant others in tow. Booze is plentiful so there’s laughter at retro cringe photos, hidden resentments bubbling up and old romantic feelings resurfacing. Except there’s nothing familiar about it at all. The record scratches pretty quickly – they’re preparing for the end of the world. Impending doom is on the agenda. And the black comedy/horror feels a little closer to home than we’d like…
We have a couple, Nell (Keira Knightley) and Simon (Matthew Goode) with their three children, who are entertaining in their lavish, English countryside house. Then there’s the extremely problematic Sandra (Peaky Blinders’ Annabelle Wallis) and husband/butt of all jokes Tony (Rufus Jones), with their daughter. Plus nice-guy doctor James (Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù) and his much younger, outsider partner Sophie (Lily-Rose Depp). It’s clear we’re getting a certain cross-section of society with this slightly intolerable, posh private school cohort – made very apparent with an abundance of air kisses, "darrrling" and "old sport". Amid Christmas table bickering, they lament having only one roast potato each for the feast, joke about the queen being in a bunker eating baked beans and how "no one listened to Greta". There are whispers of a pact. Wait, what’s going on?
All too quickly, the toxic elephant in the room is addressed. Due to irreversible climate change and environmental destruction, there are twisters carrying deadly gases heading their way, which will cause humans to experience haemorrhaging from every orifice followed by an excruciatingly painful death. The British government has given the population a suicide pill to "Die with Dignity" (further information available on the – wait for it – exit.gov.co.uk website). It’s pretty dark stuff, especially when you hear Simon explaining to his children that "not everyone will get it" and that the pill is being withheld from illegal immigrants and the homeless. There’s no ignoring the glaring parallels between the current pandemic ("Die with Dignity" appears to be a clear dig at the British PM’s laughably fickle slogans at the beginning of the pandemic), wealthy nations starving developing countries of COVID vaccines, and the refugee crisis.
We infer, between slurred speech and the usual Christmas table clashes, that the group has a suicide pact. Mother Nature’s revenge will descend on the evening of 25th December (timely!) and the plan is to have one last, privileged hurrah before going out together. But of course, some people are feeling pangs of uncertainty and deliberating over whether to take their chances despite the promised oblivion. The dark banter pours forth: "Do you believe the government? No, they killed Diana."
In her first Christmas role since 2003’s Love Actually – the one with the baker boy hat and terrible taste in pie – Keira Knightley gives it her all and feels like the only saving grace of a film that ultimately misses the mark.
The film has a lot to say – about climate change, the government, class and privilege – and while it skirts around certain things towards which it should probably hold a more scathing judgement, it goes gung ho on other aspects. Satirical or self-aware as it tries to be, the racist jokes and grim comments from this well-to-do group just don’t land, and litter the dialogue without any rebuttal or outrage. It appears we’re meant to find their ignorance humorous and endearing.
By the time the credits roll, there is a surprise twist that makes it hard to ignore what feel like anti-vaxx notions permeating the film's messaging. This might not have been Griffin's intention and more a case of bad timing, as the film was supposedly rushed out and wrapped before the first lockdown. Keira Knightley has since said in an interview that the film’s twist "became this completely fucked up thing and that would have been fine [had the pandemic not happened] and it isn’t now." It's pretty unfortunate, and in the scheme of films that feel too close to home, this one feels uncomfortably, scorchingly close. It may be unique and have all the dressings of a Christmas film but perhaps not one to watch if you're looking to get into the festive spirit.