Director – Camille Griffin – 2020 – UK – Cert. 15 – 90m
Families of old school friends gather for Christmas at a country house knowing they will die as a deadly mist envelops the planet – out in cinemas on Friday, December 3rd
Nell (Keira Knightley) and Simon (Matthew Goode) prepare to have her old school friends over for Christmas at her mother’s isolated house in the country. Their son Art (Roman Griffin Davies from Jojo Rabbit, Taika Waititi, 2019) helps mum prepare the dinner while his two twin brothers Thomas and Hardy (his real life brothers Gilby and Hardy Griffin Davies) play on the PlayStation rather than get in the bath as they’ve been told. Simon tells the boys they are allowed to swear, but not to be rude to Kitty (Davida McKenzie), daughter of Sandra (Annabelle Wallis) and Tony (Rufus Jones from The Ghoul, Gareth Tunley, 2016), even though she’s known to be difficult. Art fails this injunction spectacularly, swearing at her when she decides to watch his brothers get out of the bath, and is forced to apologise.
Additional guests include lesbian couple Bella (Lucy Punch, writer of Judy And Punch, 2019, Mirrah Foulkes) and Alex (Kirby Howell-Baptiste from Killing Eve, TV series, creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge, 2018-22) plus school heartthrob James (Sope Dirisu from His House, Remi Weekes, 2020) with his young American girlfriend Sophie (Lily-Rose Depp) in tow. The latter doesn’t really want to be there. As we’re introduced to these characters one by one, I’m bound to say that with one or two exceptions, I felt much the same. I soon started to wonder why these characters thought Nell was so great and why they wouldn’t simply give her and her husband a wide berth at Christmas.
Maybe it’s the script. (I kept thinking, someone thought this script was good enough to green-light – why?) Maybe it’s the directing (first time director Griffin also wrote it.) Maybe it’s the mostly unimaginative casting. Maybe it’s a failure to give the cast decent direction. The film can’t make up its mind whether it wants to satirise British attitudes, show a bunch of friends coming together for Christmas, be a nightmare movie, examine difficult ethical issues or attempt something else entirely.
The nightmare element doesn’t really kick in for the first half hour. A deadly mist is creeping over the land causing people to die in unpleasant ways, with symptoms including internal haemorraghing, but the British government has helpfully issued the population with painless suicide pills so they can celebrate Christmas day, then take the pills at bedtime and die with dignity.
This means that issues around mass suicide are in the air. When Art is concerned that homeless people and illegal immigrants may not get the pills, his father explains that’s just because of the system, as if that were fine, in that “it’s establishment so it’s acceptable” manner that Goode so effortlessly affects. When at the dinner table, Sophie voices her concern at the idea that old people are less important because their lives are over, Nell tries to be charming and change the subject. There’s a lot of that sort of thing. Perhaps if Knightley had been pushed to playing the hostess role with far more savagery after starting off with the turned on charm, the piece would have worked better. However, both she and Matthew Goode feel like they’re playing predictable versions of themselves.
Goode at least gets a terrific scene on the staircase where he tries to reassure the boy who is asking genuinely difficult and heartfelt questions. Davis as Art is quite brilliant throughout the film, and constantly upstages everyone else on the set. And for the finale as the mist rolls in, an all too rare clever plot twist has a passed out drunken guest wake up, get up, and throw up five minutes after their partner has fed them the death pill. Such attention-grabbing moments are, however, all too rare in a film which you no more want to see than the invited guests ought to want to turn up in the first place.
The ending has a misjudged twist in the final shot which doesn’t really come off because it demands further exposition to either clarify what’s going on or possibly send us off in multiple directions at once via several equally plausible explanations. As it stands, though, no. Just no. If you’re going to show something that suggests the government are either inept or untrustworthy, there are far more effective ways of scripting this; this one-dimensional coda isn’t good enough.
The film was shot pre-COVID, so there’s no intention of hinting at anything to do with the pandemic; the fact that it reads like that now is down to pure coincidence and bad luck. The suicide pills, named Exit, are apparently a riff on Brexit, another idea that doesn’t really work.
Overall, Last Night (Don McKellar, 1998) and Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011) both covered the subject of humanity’s final 24 hours on Earth far more effectively.
Silent Night is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, December 3rd.