The holidays are always rife with possibilities. They are an opportunity to gather together, to rekindle connections or foster already burgeoning affections. They are also an opportunity to air grievances, the energy of renewal spurning some to unleash that which’s been buried. Add in a pandemic and the land mines of the holidays can feel like nuclear arms, each possible engagement another chance for war as battle lines are drawn between what’s perceived as right or wrong. Its 2021 and, for the second year in a row, the holidays are made more difficult in-part to COVID-19, but, mainly, due to the reaction to it. The act of taking a vaccine has become so politicized that it’s no longer about public health but personal pride. So where some families choose to gather together as freely as they did in 2019 (fully-vaccinated or not), others opt for something smaller out of caution. The only right answer is to keep your family safe, yet none can actually agree on what that is or what it looks like. In a strange bit of timeliness, there comes a film from first-time feature writer/director Camille Griffin that explores the complexities of human connection during a period of great global trauma at Christmas. Her film, dark comedy Silent Night, was conceived and put into production well before COVID-19 entered the global lexicon, but the concepts it explores within, painful as they are, may just create a space for much-needed conversation and reflection.
In the London countryside, Nell (Keira Knightley) and her husband Simon (Matthew Goode) prepare for the imminent arrival of their schoolmates for their annual Christmas dinner. It’s an opportunity for them all to gather together with their children, celebrating who they were and who they’ve become. No matter how festive any of them try to make things, though, there is a persistent pallor over the event as a storm is coming, sweeping over the globe and bringing with it death. These are their final hours, spent among friends, and none shall be peaceful.
Because there have been a small string of films shot within the last year or more that included or addressed COVID-19, I feel it’s important to identify that, according to this 2021 TIFF Q&A with Griffin, Knightley, Goode, and Roman Griffin Davis (Jojo Rabbit), Silent Night was one of the last films in London to wrap before lockdown. Additionally, as originally conceived by Griffin, the world-ending event was supposed to be a virus but her then-agent found that idea to be too unbelievable, which lead to the more environmental-focused apocalypse. These things matter because it would be easy to write-off a film like Silent Night as just trying to capitalize on the trauma of today when, in fact, the film is layered with material that’s been relevant well before COVID-19 became a pandemic. In the Q&A, Griffin said that she wanted to use her specific talents to help with the causes that were relevant to her. In this regard, Silent Night becomes a microcosmic exploration of living on Earth where community, love, and support are as readily available as conflict, distrust, and isolation. Frankly, to consider Silent Night as a COVID-related project is a disservice to the real culprit in the film which is humanity’s disregard for nature, something which is very real and threatens to destroy our lives as we know it if we don’t start taking positive action.
What’s fascinating about Silent Night is how it pulls different ideas together to craft a film that works as a dark comedy (and it does get dark), as a warning about our climate crisis, as an exploration of parenthood and familial responsibility, and also as a mirror to how we, as a populace, too often trust what we hear more than what we see. In similar disaster flicks Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012), also starring Knightley, and How It Ends (2021), what destroys us is beyond our control, a fluke of luck that puts our planet in the crosshairs like what happened to the dinosaurs. What is coming for this group of friends seems beyond their control, yet they remain culpable — perhaps not the children, but certainly the adults who, as we see, are a tad too worried as to whether the kids blame them for this mess instead of focusing on finding a way out. Certainly, the film being British, there’s a bit of “Keep Calm and Carry On” about the whole thing, but that only serves to make the point all the more. None of the adults in the room want to discuss how they’ll be dead by tomorrow either by nature’s will or by taking a government-created pill that will ease them to death at their own will, but at least one child does (Griffin Davis’s Art, the eldest song of Nell and Simon). Via Art, the audience is given someone who rages against the inevitability that’s to come, seeking answers and, perhaps, even a solution that some adult might’ve missed. At first, it seems like a child’s reaction to the oncoming storm, yet, as we spend more time with the adults, Art’s points become more cogent by comparison, especially as Lily-Rose Depp’s Sophie, the girlfriend of group member James (Ṣọpé Dìrísù), attempts to try to discuss what’s happening openly and is shutdown hard. Is it her American sensibilities butting against their English ones or is Sophie merely seeking the all-to-human connection of discussing her feelings with a group who are, traditionally, discouraged from doing so? Granted, there’s little this group can do, but their willingness to just continue with the holiday as if everything is normal creates an excruciating tension that builds until it can’t be contained. From there on out, there’s nothing but terrible pain which can be understood universally but not truly felt unless you’re a parent.
What’s a fascinating misdirect is Griffin’s use of the group to explore the end of the world. This is a group that’s known each other for so long that their secrets have secrets, the end of the world allowing for revelation. Wisely, the audience is largely privy to them and they’re the sort which, even if we weren’t, we can see coming, which allows the focus to be on how the characters react and not the revelations themselves. It doesn’t help us, the audience, to learn these secrets, but they do provide the means to push the characters to the point where formality fades and their humanity bursts forward. This is also where humanity as a general concept is skewered because we care so much about our family and our friends, but don’t care enough to extend that beyond our immediate circle. If we did, would the world have reached a point of delivering a giant F.U. to humanity? (This is a question to mediate on regarding the fictitious world of Silent Night and the very real one you’re existing in now.)
Griffin’s Silent Night is hilariously dark and downright torturous. Her cast, a skilled group which includes members of her family (Roman, twins Hardy and Gilby Griffin Davis, and Dora Davis) as well as adults who are parents themselves, balances the humor with the heartbreak on a razor’s edge. Each member is accomplished in a variety of genres, putting them all on equal footing to play the savior or the bastard at any given moment. What Griffin’s script and this adult cast make clear is that, even with the best of intentions, parents screw up. Sometimes it can be made right (like following through on a promise of a full can of Coke) and sometimes it can’t (like keeping them safe in an extinction level event). Though Silent Night offers a great sense of hopelessness and inevitability, there is opportunity in that it doesn’t have to be this way. Healthy parents expect not to outlive their children. In fact, it’s the pact we make when we bring them into this world. Silent Night is a possible future only if nothing changes, if we keep calm and carry on. But, if we’re willing to stop pretending like we know what’s best, if we let the children lead, maybe there can be hope after all. As the father of two, I sure hope so.
Now don’t mind me, I’m going to go hug my kids while I still can.
In theaters and streaming exclusively on AMC+ in North America December 3rd, 2021.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.