Keira Knightley is ready for the end of the world.
After fending off swashbuckling pirates in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End and embarking on a spur-of-the-moment road trip through a lawless America in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Knightley’s task in this movie seems deceptively simpler: enduring a family Christmas dinner that happens to coincide with, well, the end of the world.
Silent Night is also a family affair for debut director Camille Griffin, whose three children, including Jojo Rabbit star Roman Griffin Davis, feature in the film and whose husband assisted with cinematography.
Introducing the film at its world premiere, Griffin said, “I hope you enjoy the film. Actually, ‘enjoy’ might not be the right word.” And her comment rings true.
The film starts out as regular holiday fare. Knightley’s character, Nell, and her husband, Simon (Matthew Goode) prepare to host old friends for a Christmas party.
But as soon as they begin to tuck into the family feast, we quickly learn that all is not as it seems: a poisonous gas is spreading across the world and even the Queen has fled to a bunker that’s filled with baked beans and dog food — for her dog, of course. The kids all have their takes — “It’s the Russians!” says one; “Greta warned us,” says another — as the parents try to shush the world’s troubles away, insisting everyone focus on the merriment in front of them. The dark secret, we soon learn, is that the adults have decided that everyone will take ‘exit pills.’ The pills are the government’s recommended course of action; they will lead to an easy death instead of the painful one that the poisonous gas promises.
Being trapped in a house with a rich family has become a staple on-screen, whether in the Oscar-winning Parasite, the eclectic family reunion in Knives Out, or even the deadly hide and seek game, Get Out. In that regard, Silent Night treads on well-trodden ground — hitting its trope’s basic concepts, and adding a little new insight about posh British people.
But the film works better when Griffin combines that critique with commentary on inaction toward the climate crisis. Climate activist Greta Thunberg’s famous address, “Our house is on fire,” takes a literal meaning in the film, which tackles global issues in the framework of the family. The children think about their eventual demise in a serious manner as their parents deny reality. Nell and Simon insist to their family that their situation is perfectly normal. When they finally acknowledge the poisonous gas, they emphasize that they aren’t responsible for it as parents, in a weak attempt at dark humour.
The couple’s son, Art (Ronan Griffin Davis) is the only dissenting voice, relentlessly pushing back against the parents. Art demands answers for the ills of his world; for example, asking why ‘illegal immigrants’ weren’t given the exit pill his family got. His father attempts to comfort him by explaining that the family is powerless to help those in need. The contrast between these characters captures a pair divided by a generational gap; the elder, paralyzed by inaction, and the younger, who cannot understand complacency.
But here’s where the parallels with reality start to get more messy. Unlike in Silent Night, the problem we face in the real world is not a choice between different kinds of imminent death — such as a poisonous gas or an exit pill — but more one about deciding whether to protect others or participate in inaction.
Art’s inherent questioning of real-life authority would make Griffin’s stance appear similar to that of a climate change denier or an anti-vaxxer — a misconception that the director quickly clarified to my screening’s audience, saying this was not the film’s message.
While the film is timely — its plot involves families stuck in homes while an invisible threat lurks outside — the more interesting parallel is the value of dissent in times of disaster. How do we know when to keep asking questions and when to stop?
Silent Night ratchets up the absurdity of its characters’ choices amid looming disaster. The laughter in the theatre, however, was tinged with discomfort, since we were also laughing at ourselves.