Family and friends meet for one last Christmas, before the world ends.
Coming in at a pacy hour and 30 minutes – a length many can only dream of when it comes to family Christmas dinners that feel like the end of the world — Silent Night bounces along until almost the end; beautiful, bitterly funny and bizarrely realistic.
There’s a sense, mixed in with the foreboding, that we’ve seen all of this — rich Brits getting drunk while flirting, arguing and making grim jokes — before. Though writer-director Camille Griffin has crafted her characters well, and assembled a terrific ensemble cast; even without their impending deaths I think I’d sympathise with them, despite not particularly liking them (the adults, anyway).
‘Tis the season for apocalyptic climate movies, it seems. Last December we had the underrated George Clooney vehicle The Midnight Sky, about a man and a young girl stuck at one of the Poles while the Earth dies under a strange cloud. This year we have Silent Night, about a final country house Christmas before a toxic cloud rolls in, killing all in its wake.
As the doomsday clock ticks down, this group of family and friends from the upper middle classes eat, drink, reminisce and dance to Fame. Shared memories give way to grievances, aired in that sloppy, drunken way; and how could I not like a film where important messages are delivered via Scrabble? It’s impossible to forget what’s about to happen and I wanted to shake Alex (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), wasting her last few hours dozing in a chair after drinking too much champagne.
Silent Night is something of a family affair in its creation too. Griffin is the mother of its young star, JoJo Rabbit‘s Roman Griffin Davis. He plays Art, eldest son of Nell (a brilliantly nervy, brittle Keira Knightley) and Simon (Matthew Goode). His real life brothers, twins Gilby and Hardy (always adorable and hilarious), play his twin tween brothers Thomas and Hardy. And while it’s about climate change, it’s also about the burden we place on the younger generations to somehow fix it, even as we try to convince them it’s not really our fault (which makes Griffin’s use of her own children more interesting. Is this a personal mea culpa to them?)
The boys’ parents, their friends and partners have a pact that they will see their final Christmas in together, before taking their government-issue suicide pills. Not everyone is convinced, though the slightest deviation from what was agreed leaves others shaken, their fragile certainties crumbling. Sophie (Lily-Rose Depp), the younger partner of James (Ṣọpé Dìrísù), is pregnant, and unwilling to take a pill that will kill her unborn baby even though she knows she will then suffer a more painful death. Art is increasingly angry as he realises everything is out of his hands, even questioning whether the scientists have got it right at all. He’s not the only one. “Do you believe the Government?” asks Sandra (Annabelle Wallis), a cross between Edina from AbFab and Trinny Woodall. “God no! They killed Diana!” replies her friend Bella (Lucy Punch).
Art is even more devastated when he discovers that those at the bottom of the pile have been ignored entirely: homeless people and illegal immigrants are missed off the pill distribution lists. Still, there comes a point where even privilege cannot protect one from the end of the world, especially when certain death is presaged by the stripped-bare shelves of the local Waitrose.
These are posh people, mostly educated together, presumably at some progressive co-educational boarding school. They are actually the perfect mix of old-U and new-U, in that their children are expected to be mini adults like in the past, but in a nod to current posh parenting are retrieved from their own quarters to soothe adult egos and make their parents feel better. Nell and Sandra even take up valuable time sitting down with their children to explain that what is happening is not the parents’ fault.
A few notes don’t ring true: mainly that our government would have an actual plan, even if its casual cruelty seems very believable. Naturally they’ve put money into an app, which lists the stages of suffering and death: toxic inhalation, attack on the nervous system, and fatal haemorrhage. The app exhorts British citizens to choose to “die with dignity” by taking their pills.
Griffin takes us outside the walls (real and figurative) only occasionally, to show us the shattering realities of what is to come, including a video call with Art’s overseas grandmother (Trudie Styler, impeccably trying to hold it all together for her grandchildren, then shutting it down when she realises the cloud is approaching. Her slight shake as she pours a wobbly last glass is perfect in its fears and its finality).
Griffin Davis is excellent as Art, burdened with the quick mind of the enquiring child, and of modern parents who let him know too much and not enough. In much smaller roles, the Griffin twins are a hoot: genial and accepting, but with a grimly firm sense of right and wrong that threatens to derail their parents’ final plans.
Silent Night feels scarily true to life, until it loses itself near the end, when any accidental similarities to the COVID pandemic are left behind and we are into the unknown territory of the actual end of days (it was written and mostly filmed pre-lockdowns). The elites have weathered so many storms and always reinvented themselves, bouncing back with their privileges intact, but a toxic cloud knows no class barriers. Unlike COVID (and indeed the medieval Black Death before it) escaping to a big house in the country only means one dies in more elegant surroundings.
The final scenes are played as farce, and it almost works as mini disasters threaten their carefully laid plans. Despite some final clunkiness, farce actually feels an appropriate way to herald the climate cataclysm about to literally envelope the world, a catastrophe of mankind’s own doing. As Dr Mindy (Leonardo diCaprio) says during recent comet-astrophe movie Don’t Look Up, another climate change allegory that almost works: “The thing of it is, we really did have everything, didn’t we?”
Read my article on themes and the ending to Silent Night.
Silent Night is in UK cinemas and available on digital download.
Watch the Silent Night trailer now:
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