In Silent Night, friends and family gather for one final Christmas together. But a night that should have been ordinary turns out to be momentous.
Camille Griffin (director and writer), Sam Renton (cinematography), Martin Walsh (editor), Pia Di Ciaula (editor)
Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Roman Griffin Davis, Annabelle Wallis, Lily-Rose Depp, Ṣọpé Dìrísù, Lucy Punch, Kirby Howell-Baptiste (cast)
September 17, 2021
Nell (Keira Knightley) and Simon (Matthew Goode) have invited their closest friends to Christmas dinner. There’s a lot of history within this group. There’s flighty Sandra (Annabelle Wallis) and her boring husband, Tony (Rufus Jones). Effervescent Bella (Lucy Punch) and her earnest partner, recovering Alex (Kirby Howell-Baptiste). Then there’s the carcinologist James (Ṣọpé Dìrísù) and his much younger partner, Sophie (Lily-Rose Depp).
This group have gathered together for Christmas because they’ve made a pact: all of them and their children are going to die that night. The reason why is slowly unveiled as the film progresses — but as a hint, this film certainly speaks to current climate anxieties. While most of the group have begrudgingly accepted this decision, not everyone agrees, least of all Nell and Simon’s son, Art (Roman Griffin Davis). Can this disparate group of friends and family make the right choice when there’s so little time left?
Silent Night could best be categorised as a dark comedy, but that description is reductive. I’d say the film straddles the line between multiple genres. The first act certainly feels comedic, almost satirical, at times, before moving into the more dramatic, even melodramatic acts later in the film.
There’s a science-fiction element that’s introduced as the film proceeds, but I wish it had been developed better. The characters have more information than the audience, which is a technique that often works to generate suspense. But this particular development elicited such melodramatic reactions from some of the characters that it honestly felt like a joke. I would have structured the reveal differently. I found myself wanting to escape the overwrought characters at first, but once I understood what was happening, it made me more sympathetic to their plight. A less cryptic approach to their pending doom would have been to make the group interactions less ambiguous.
Silent Night is a surprisingly prescient film for our times, despite being written pre-COVID. The film echoes many of the concerning discussions we’ve heard repeatedly during the pandemic. Writer/director Camille Griffin explained in her introduction at TIFF 2021 that she intended to show how inept people can be in the face of disaster, despite their wealth and social status.
But I don’t think the film goes far enough with its central conceit. Granted, I’m watching this through the eyes of someone living in a pandemic. We’ve seen how little regard humanity, and especially people in positions of power, have had for human life. While so many have halted their lives in an effort to keep the world safe, far too many have carried on like its business as usual, thus ensuring the pandemic is prolonged.
It’s unfair to put all this baggage on Silent Night, but the film’s divide between the haves and the have-nots isn’t exactly a new theme to be explored in pop culture. This particular group of people at the centre of this story have even been the stars of many such stories before. What I really would have liked is to see a different social group at the heart of a plot like this.
While I struggled to enjoy Silent Night at first, the film does pick up halfway through. Once we get to know the characters a bit more, and understand their dynamics, I liked them a lot better. The relationships aren’t unusual — we’ve seen these types of friend groups in film before. The resolutions in Silent Night don’t feel cathartic, but I also feel like that isn’t the point of the film at all. There isn’t enough time in the story for the characters to talk through all their baggage. I appreciated that; this film was bogged down by a fair amount of exposition, and we definitely didn’t need any more.
In an ensemble cast, there are always going to be some characters that stand out more than others. I always find myself drawn to queer characters. Bella and Alex were the relationship I wanted to see more of but I didn’t get enough. Silent Night just has too many characters and, as always, the queer relationship was deprioritised.
I really enjoyed watching Howell-Baptiste’s Alex. She’s a bit of an outsider in the group — a woman who’s dragged into her partner’s mess. I love how much Alex just wanted the little, normal things people do at Christmas, like playing Trivial Pursuit or a board game. She looks so crestfallen when the rest of the group aren’t interested—it’s such a genuine reaction for a person at a Christmas gathering that I forgot about the extraordinary circumstances the characters were in.
One of the performances that surprised me was Matthew Goode as Simon. He was excellent — so natural and real that it didn’t feel like Goode was acting at all. You get a real sense of Simon as a man who is both terrified of what’s to come and desperate to ensure that everything is perfect. Goode also had excellent chemistry with the rest of the cast, and it really sold the relationships onscreen.
While Keira Knightley is the star of Silent Night, I don’t think this is her best work. She seems to be acutely aware of the character’s circumstances and it takes away from her performance. It also didn’t help that she got sidelined in the final act in favour of Goode. I would have liked to see more of what Knightley could do when the stakes for Nell were high.
Ṣọpé Dìrísù, meanwhile, is having a moment at TIFF 2021. He was memorable in his curtailed role in Mothering Sunday and he holds his own in this ensemble cast. James is the doctor and the only one who’s decisions are based on rational logic. In a symphony of melodrama, Dìrísù manages to create a character who is cool and calm, yet believably human. Dìrísù is building up quite the resume for himself and I hope we get to see him take the spotlight soon.
What I was genuinely surprised and delighted by in Silent Night was the relationship between the three men, Simon, James, and Tony. There’s no macho bravado here. These are three terrified men who aren’t afraid to show their vulnerable sides. They’re also happy to hug each other and hold hands and tell each other that they love each other when it’s the literal end of the world for them. I would love to see more of this in cinema.
I was ready to dislike Silent Night during the first act but by the end of the film, I changed my mind entirely. I quite liked the characters and sympathised with their situation. It also made me think about the state of our world in a pandemic and what human relationships are going to be like. If you go into this film with an open mind — and you force yourself through the first few scenes — you will enjoy the experience.