What would you do at the end of the world? It’s a question that’s been the subject of so many books and films it borders on cliché. Yet, the diversity of answers it reveals and what they say about humanity never fails to intrigue.
In Silent Night, director Camille Griffin applies the question to a group of British friends with varying degrees of privilege. They are members of the upper class and their ideas about their wealth, safety and general empathy for the rest of humanity come under scrutiny. This shaky apocalyptic film doesn’t land at times, but its gripping final act, a handful of standout performances and attempts at commentary about class and climate change will probably keep most audiences engaged.
Worth it for the performances and the gripping final act.
Naturally, the film begins on the evening before the end of the world. Nell (Keira Knightley) and her husband Simon (Matthew Goode) are scrambling around their palatial home. Their friends from school, invited over for Christmas dinner, will be there any moment and nothing feels ready. Nell labors over the oven warming a paltry serving of potatoes while her husband runs through the grounds trying to catch a chicken. Their son Art (Roman Griffin Davis) is busy chopping carrots until he slices through his skin and starts bleeding, and his twin brothers, Hardy (Hardy Griffin Davis) and Thomas (Gilby Griffin Davis), are nowhere to be found.
Meanwhile, driving up to the couple’s home are their friends, whom we meet in an efficient fashion. There is self-centered Sandra (Annabelle Wallis), her well-meaning yawn of a husband, Tony (Rufus Jones), and their obnoxious kid, Kitty (Davida McKenzie). Strong-willed Bella (Lucy Punch) and her partner, Alex (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), who is quiet and more observational, are in the next car. And following them are James (Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù) and Sophie (Lily-Rose Depp), whose roles as the perfectly well-meaning guests make them sadly forgettable.
The goal of the evening, according to Nell, is to focus on love and forgiveness (although she’s coy about who exactly needs forgiving). They will laugh, reminisce and imbibe. What they won’t do is think about the end of the world, and the fact that they will all die in the morning.
In Silent Night, the apocalypse isn’t brought on by zombies or asteroids — it’s caused by years of neglect. As Art astutely puts it at the dinner table, “For years the planet has absorbed everyone’s filthy rubbish and it’s had enough, it can’t take it anymore so it’s spitting it back out as a fuck you to the world.” In the morning, the government has told them, a noxious gas will descend on the planet and kill everyone.
While the logic of these end times is a bit shaky, the premise allows writer-director Griffin to use the film for more philosophical purposes. The threat of the world’s end raises intense but restrained debates among the friends about security, climate change and collective responsibility. Most of Silent Night hinges on the strength of these conversations, but the film could have pushed itself more with its ideas instead of rehashing familiar, and at times elementary, observations.
Where it does well, however, is in its treatment of the perspective of children. In fact, the adults are the least interesting part of Silent Night. While the four children — Kitty, Art, Hardy and Thomas — have divergent opinions about the end of society, some more conspiratorial than others, they are willing to engage in passionate and heated debate. Roman Griffin Davis as Art is particularly thrilling to watch. Committed to his ideals and fed up with the adults in his life, he repeatedly takes everyone to task and demands that they reflect on their actions. He acknowledges the urgency of their situation and, without giving too much of the story away, their cowardice.
Cinematographer Sam Renton tackles the job of adding tension to these heated moments by liberally using close-up shots of everyone’s faces. Of all of them, Alex — with her raised eyebrows and widening eyes — feels most aligned with the audience.
Throughout Silent Night, I found myself in a constant state of yearning. I wanted more from the characters and their debates. It’s disappointing though not surprising that Howell-Baptiste and Dìrísù (the film’s only Black characters) mostly fade into the background.
The discussions could have used more heft to emphasize the stakes of these final hours. But there are glimmers. In one scene with the kids, Nell articulates the beginnings of the film’s core. “We just want to make you understand that as your parents, we are not to blame,” she says. “This is not our choice, and this is not our fault. Clearly it’s not your fault either.” Her words are met with a deafening silence and a heavy question hangs in the air: Who, if not us, will be responsible for the end of the world?