Silent Night was reviewed out of Fantastic Fest, and will debut in theaters and on AMC+ on Dec. 3.
Camille Griffin’s Silent Night depicts an upbeat Christmas get-together before carefully pulling back the curtain on its bleak underlying premise. The ensemble, led by Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, and Jojo Rabbit star Roman Griffin Davis — the real-life son of the film’s writer-director — each deliver tremendously enjoyable comedic performances that soon give way to something more rigorous. While it may not have much to say about the state of the world (despite constant references and parallels to global events), its tonal balancing act goes a long way towards capturing conflicting emotional responses to large-scale tragedies, and to widespread changes that feel inescapable.
At their lush country home in England, the seemingly put-together Nell (Knightley) and Simon (Goode) play host to a group of longtime friends, including the high-strung Sandra (Annabelle Wallis), her dull husband Tony (Rufus Jones), the charmer James (Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù), and the wry and towering Bella (Lucy Punch). They’re old schoolmates who are lively as a large group, and whose smaller dynamics prove to be uniquely entertaining when they break off into gossipy pairs and trios. Rounding out the group of adults is James’ young, opinionated American girlfriend, Sophie (Lily-Rose Depp), and Bella’s curiously contentious girlfriend, Alex (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), outsiders who occasionally bristle and bump shoulders against the group, but whose disconnect from the happy reunion is slowly revealed to have more melancholy layers.
Also in tow are Nell and Simon’s children, the amusingly foul-mouthed Art (Roman Griffin Davis) and his older twin brothers, Thomas and Hardy (Gilby Griffin Davis and Hardy Griffin Davis, also the director’s kids), as well as Sandra and Tony’s spoiled daughter, Kitty (Davida McKenzie), who the boys don’t care for, and at whom even the adults roll their eyes. The film’s initial mile-a-minute humor stems not only from the adults’ sharp witticisms, but from the ways Kitty and Art are framed in relation to them. The grownups aren’t afraid to make it known how obnoxious they find Kitty, while on the other hand, Art isn’t afraid to challenge them and get into arguments over what he perceives as political apathy. The kids are, absurdly and intriguingly, placed on the same conversational level as the adults, which leads to plenty of surprising barbs. Eventually, though, the strange reasons for this disconnected (and some might say, disconcerting) adult-child dynamic slowly become clear, starting with a hilariously dour bit of gift wrapping: a recent newspaper that hints at oncoming danger, both vast and quickly approaching.
The details are best discovered while watching the film, from the nature of the threat to the various responses at both government and individual levels. However, none of this comes as a surprise to the adult characters, each of whom appear to have arrived at various stages of acceptance of something they will likely be unable to prevent. Before long, their dry, sarcastic armor begins to crack, allowing insecurities and long-festering interpersonal tensions to seep through. But despite the adults’ desolate resignation, Art approaches the situation with white-hot rage, which makes for a fascinating contrast to the adults, and affords Roman Griffin Davis some truly challenging physical and emotional work.
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While the ensemble is undoubtedly funny, the question of how to approach vast, overpowering and potentially defeating forces — the film draws several comparisons to climate change and the COVID pandemic — is ultimately what paints the finer details of each character. The more the premise comes to light, the more their hilarious idiosyncrasies start to seem despondent. They make plenty of references to world leaders, famous activists, and social inequities; these are all in the context of the looming threat, but they’re ultimately conversational window-dressing, despite the film’s attempts to offer a wider perspective from its narrow, isolated vantage point in the middle of nowhere.
However, the characters’ blinders are also what allows the central theme to ultimately shine through: the façade of normalcy in the face of doom and gloom. Camille Griffin and cinematographer Sam Renton’s visual approach is fine-tuned to suit this idea. It begins unassumingly, with purely functional, sitcom-esque blocking, lighting, and visual composition, which have little to say at first; the film’s relative flatness, however, allows the snappy dialogue to do all the talking. Once the sun sets and tensions fly, the warm light of Nell and Simon’s home helps better shape the close ups during thoughtful moments, as a tug of war emerges between intimate character beats and enormous wide shots of the approaching threat.
The adult cast — Knightley and Goode especially — are tasked with a similarly delicate balance. As the midnight hour approaches, they wrestle with how soon to let their fears show in front of their children. The result is a movie that finds glimmers of innocent, perhaps even naïve defiance, by centering the ways in which different generations are forced to shoulder the weight of hopelessness, an idea made all the more potent by the fact that Camille Griffin chooses her own children as subjects for her morose exploration. And yet, despite its lofty themes and occasionally muddled political scope, Silent Night rarely ceases to be enjoyable, even in its bleakest moments.