Silent Night, despite its title and its festivity-themed opening scenes, might be called an anti-Christmas film, one that uses the holidays as a suitably ironic background for its less than jovial storyline. It opens on a beautiful, large house in the country, where Nell (Keira Knightley), in a white lace dress, is preparing for a family party and overnight guests, taking care of the holiday decorations in the splendid surroundings. Christmas carols play as friends and relatives begin to arrive. It appears to be a typical, if upscale, holiday family film, cheery but with the possibility of conflict among the various personalities. As the characters are introduced, there are mildly comical disputes about food, about who gets which guest room, about which relations were not invited. Conversation at dinner is friendly but slightly strained and awkward; Nell’s husband, Simon (Matthew Goode), tries to keep things running smoothly, doggedly and cheerfully distracting from arguments and sensitive topics as they arise. The family members are established, in various amusing ways, as more than a little entitled and self-absorbed.
The first hint of anything amiss comes when the conversation turns to the Queen’s Christmas speech; one of the guests, the indiscreet Sophie (Lily-Rose Depp), speculates that Her Majesty must be in a secure bunker somewhere. The others quickly try to shush her, but the idea of a secret threat has been introduced into the party, and the film shifts at this point from a family comedy drama to a mystery. The children, led by the precocious Art (Jojo Rabbit star Roman Griffin Davis), talk among themselves about the possibilities, suggesting a poison gas attack, an environmental catastrophe; but they are easily distracted by offers of dessert – apart from young Art, who continues to probe the matter in any way he can devise.
Director Camille Griffin introduced the film at the Toronto Film Festival, explaining her intentions with the story: “I believe that as the world becomes more fragile, society becomes more divided between those that do and those that don’t give a damn about one another. With Silent Night, I wanted to investigate the world of privilege,” she said, adding: “I wanted to see what might happen when catastrophe knocks at their door, given that no amount of money, education, good manners can save anyone from the inevitable.”
It is easy to jump to the conclusion that Griffin intended the film as a metaphor for the current pandemic, but there was no such connection: “I wrote the script pre-COVID, without any knowledge of the pandemic; and it didn’t enter our world until we began filming,” she explained. “But I think what has become clear to everyone is that it’s incredibly hard to protect society as a whole, and we need to step up and take care of one another. So I hope the film, with all its comedy and tragedy, asks some important questions: how far are we prepared to go to protect the ones we love, and how far are we prepared to go to protect the rest of the world?” the director concluded.
The plot develops slowly, revealing more about the characters while releasing, a morsel at a time, hints about the disaster they are supposedly dealing with. The wealth and privilege of the group is made immediately apparent by their luxurious surroundings but is also brought out through their attitude of entitlement in both trivial and seriously consequential matters, and brief contacts with the world outside the country house make their advantages painfully clear. As the nature of the mysterious catastrophe is gradually disclosed, so is the party’s proposed method of dealing with it, and the question of privilege takes on a larger and much darker meaning.
The ensemble cast of Silent Night meshes perfectly, providing a hilarious, often uncomfortable depiction of an extended family coping with its conflicts and differences, slights and perceived rejections, all of it taking on a surreal quality by the backdrop of potential havoc. Child actor Roman Griffin Davis particularly stands out; his character’s innocent efforts to understand and solve the threat looming over the party are heartbreaking.
The film’s mood is unusual; its incongruous combination of relaxed celebration and total disaster is similar to the 1998 drama Last Night, except that Silent Night finds pointed humour in the situation. The light family comedy of the opening act doesn’t quite prepare the audience for where the story will lead; but even at its most gruesome, the film never completely abandons comedy; the darker the scene, the funnier it generally becomes, humour and horror actually feeding one another at some points. Humour also slightly cushions the impact of the film’s message about privilege and the duty to care for one another under the harshest of circumstances, which reaches its target just in time for Christmas.