The idyllic country house, the icing sugar sprinkle of snow on the ground – it all conjures up images of the perfect, cosy Christmas and it’s not long before a group of friends arrive in their immaculate cars for a festive get-together. Money’s no object, there’s presents galore but, as they gather around the table, it’s clear things aren’t quite as they should be.
Potatoes are in short supply, so there’s only one roastie each, while two of the husbands have no difficulty in breaking into the local Marks and Spencer so one of the children can have her favourite sticky toffee pudding. Camille Griffin’s debut feature as writer and director scatters just enough clues throughout the first half hour of Silent Night for the audience to hazard a decent guess at what’s to come. This may be the time of year when everybody’s meant to be enjoying themselves, but it’s also the day when the world is about to come to an end. Tornados of poisonous gas caused by climate change are sweeping around the world and the group have come together for one last Christmas dinner, after which they’ll take their government-supplied pills and escape the horrors of the apocalypse.
After over 18 months of living with a pandemic, it’s an easy assumption that Griffin wrote the story with coronavirus in mind. In truth, it was all developed and filmed just before the first lockdown so its release against the current backdrop is pure coincidence, but perhaps a fortunate one. It helps us relate to what the people on screen are facing, especially as they’re not the most endearing bunch but more of a parody of the middle class types so familiar from Peter’s Friends onwards. There’s one exception. The oldest son of Nell (Keira Knightley) and Simon (Matthew Goode), Art (Roman Griffin Davis) may have a potty mouth, but he’s the real grown up of the house and is infinitely more switched on about the world around him. He refuses to accept the inevitability of what’s coming, providing a much-needed counterpoint to the acceptance of the so-called adults.
Make no mistake, this is bleak stuff. The humour is dark and the future it paints is grim but, while comedy can be a sharp device for making a point, there are times here when it lacks that all-important edge. It’s not helped by most of the characters feeling very much at arm’s length, but the film scores in other ways. Its insights into human behaviour are acute – at a moment of crisis, the most trivial of things can take on a ludicrous importance – and the brittle layer of gloss which barely disguises the doom-laden atmosphere is depicted with skill. Griffin Davis’s performance is easily the stand-out, showing that JoJo Rabbit was far from a one-off for this talented young actor.
Silent Night isn’t an easy watch. Its subject matter leaves you wanting more – it never goes deeply enough into the reasons for the disaster – even if what we’re shown still manages to hold on to our interest. But it has its moments and, while it’s not wholly successful as a pre-apocalyptic movie, it subverts the sentimentality of the Christmas movie tradition with a large helping of mischievous glee.
Drama, Comedy | Cert: 15 | Altitude Films | Cinemas, 3 December 2021 | Dir. Camille Griffin | Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Roman Griffin Davis, Lily-Rose Depp, Rufus Jones, Davida McKenzie.