Writer-director Camille Griffin’s debut feature, Silent Night, plays like any other family comedy set around Christmas. A makeshift family is driving to spend the holiday season with Simon (Matthew Goode) and Nell (Keira Knightley), each with trepidations about the festivities. There are hints of grudges, secrets, and cracks in the relationships, much like any other family drama… but also something sinister and unusual bubbling beneath the merriment.
Sweary Nell and dashing Simon are rushing around their countryside manor while their children (Jojo Rabbit’s Roman Griffin Davis) and twins Thomas (Gilby Griffin Davis) and Hardy (Hardy Griffin Davis) enjoy their holiday gift of being able to swear as much as they want without punishment. It’s all very frantic and middle class, with all annoyance hidden behind gritted teeth.
The guests come in the form of selfish Sandra (Malignant’s Annabelle Wallis) with her useless husband Tony (Rufus Jones) and precocious child (Davida McKenzie, sister of Thomasin) in tow; Blunt Bella (Lucy Punch) and her partner (Kirby Howell-Baptiste); and doctor James (Sope Dirisu) and his much younger girlfriend Sophie (Lily-Rose Depp).
Griffin keeps the real truth out of the audience’s reach for as long as possible, weaving it through dialogue. Something bad is coming and the less you know going into Silent Night, the more disturbing it’ll be. Art is becoming angrier and angrier with the politics around him whilst the other kids seem to be living without rules. From the opening scenes, there’s something going on, but Griffin is smart enough to not give it away too soon.
The early beats are reminiscent of every other holiday film, with a sticky toffee pudding disaster, an argument about the suitability of a younger girlfriend… and some blood on the carrots. But all these characters feel paper-thin, it’s hard to work out what connects them and why they’re even friends. The dynamics feel forced and backstories sketchy, as the quaint opening misses its chance to help us get to know and care about the group.
Although the cast is charming enough working from a tonally difficult screenplay. Roman Griffin Davis is stand out as a frantic child who can’t stop Googling bad news, despite his parents’ wishes; Goode and Knightley also sell their role as flustered parents catering to awkward friends, their clipped middle-class-ness working well in this situation; Punch is doing a lesser version of her Motherland TV character; the talented Howell-Baptiste is seriously underused; and Depp (daughter of Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis) shows she’s more than a nepotism hire; whilst Dirisu makes the most out of his few, emotional scenes.
Sold as a black comedy, Silent Night is far too bleak and sombre to warrant any laughter. Sandra becomes more and more self-centred, showing off expensive shoes she chose over her daughter’s education and asking why those in the room didn’t try to sleep with her over the course of their friendship. It’s not funny, it’s just awkward. Wallis struggles with the tone of her character, unsure if Sandra is a terrible person in general or just masking the traumatic situation.
There’s a wonderful irony to Lily-Rose Depp’s Sophie and Davis’ Art questioning the government’s sinister actions that are soon sure to ruin Christmas, as the adults drunkenly dance around to Irene Cara. Children in Silent Night often serve as proxies for the adults, engaging in political conversations while their parents’ reminiscence about high school shenanigans.
Silent Night wants to be a holiday drama, a dark satire of class and privilege, and a horror film simultaneously, yet fails to hit any of these genres. The film does deliver a few moving moments, like Nell’s mother (producer Trudie Styler) saying her goodbyes on a video call, and the moment Art goes outside and sees the reality of their upcoming fate. If Silent Night had stuck more to this type of family drama, it could have managed better emotional punch.
The concept is undoubtedly smart, and in the hands of someone with good dark comedy sensibilities it could’ve been a biting satire on Christmas films and the cluelessness of the British middle classes. Silent Night does have its highlights, like a faintly amusing discussion about the reason they don’t trust the government (“they killed Diana”), and the scene where Simon spends his final moments dealing with his kid’s ridiculous demand will ring true to any exasperated parent. But it’s almost too depressing to watch. The satire that hammers in how bad the situation is isn’t funny, it’s just sad. This plot desperately needed real humour and lightness as a counterbalance, or else it should have leaned fully into its sentimentality more.
The idea of the government’s inaction in an international crisis has become one that’s hard to make funny or biting in the era of COVID, too. Silent Night does have an eeriness that’ll stick with you, even if the final act is an unbalanced mix of inappropriate slapstick and heartbreaking drama. But the way children’s vulnerability to their parent’s beliefs and decisions shouldn’t be played for laughs.
Silent Night doesn’t really know what it wants to say, or the genre it wants to be in. It’s too bleak to be funny yet too shallow to be emotional. It doesn’t know if it wants to talk about government conspiracies, examine how people would spend their last hours on Earth, or just be a silly antidote to saccharine holiday favourites like Love Actually (2003).
UK | 2021 | 92 MINUTES | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
writer & director: Camille Griffin.
starring: Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Roman Griffin Davis, Annabelle Wallis, Lily-Rose Depp, Sope Dirisu, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Lucy Punch & Rufus Jones.