Producers: Matthew Vaughn, Trudie Styler and Celine Rattray Director: Camille Griffin Screenplay: Camille Griffin Cast: Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Roman Griffin Davis, Annabelle Wallis, Lily-Rose Depp, Sope Dirisu, Kirby Howell-Baptist, Lucy Punch, Rufus Jones, Gilby Griffin Davis and Hardy Griffin Davis Distributor: RLJ Entertainment
When people talk about partying as if there were no tomorrow, they’re usually exaggerating; but for the characters in Camille Griffin’s tragic-funny Christmas movie, it’s literally true. “Silent Night” is a comedy about impending doom in which the disparate elements never really gel.
The setting is a comfortable British country house where Nell (Keira Knightley) and Simon (Matthew Goode) are hosting a Christmas Eve gathering along with their children, precocious Art (Roman Griffin Davis) and twins Thomas and Hardy (Gilby Griffin Davis and Hardy Griffin Davis). Three cars arrive to disgorge their occupants. In the first is smugly selfish Sandra (Annabelle Wallis), her boringly obtuse husband Tony (Rufus Jones), and their snotty daughter Kitty (Davida McKenzie). Next come pushy Bella (Lucy Punch) and reserved Alex (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), her partner. The final couple are rational doctor James (Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù) and his quiet, empathetic American wife Sophie (Lily-Rose Depp).
It’s a special night for all, because it will be their last. As a result of global warming, a lethal cloud is about to envelop the earth and kill its inhabitants gruesomely. The government has considerately supplied poison capsules for each person to take on Christmas Day to avoid the pain the cloud will inflict on them—a present from the bureaucracy.
Of the partygoers only young Art, whom Davis invests with the same concentrated energy he brought to the title character of Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit,” seems genuinely concerned about the policies that brought the planet to the precipice of doom, and suspicious of the solution that the establishment has devised to address the plague. The other children are self-absorbed in their own ways, and the same can be said of the adults, who sit around drinking and chatting, in the process revealing their long-buried prejudices, secrets, and grudges just as people are wont to do at such all-night parties in plays and films, whether set on the earth’s final night or not. The conversation is meant to be amusing and shocking in equal measure, but by the standard of such fare it’s pretty tepid, and the performances follow suit.
As the fatal midnight approaches, things heat up, especially when Art rushes outside and encounters a horrible sight. The witching hour passes—we get a nice shot of a Bose sound system to inform us that it’s 12:10, and for those who can’t contend with digital clocks a guest kindly emphasizes the fact that “it’s tomorrow”—and the characters must all prepare themselves for the final solution.
There are, of course, complications. Alex has passed out, and Bella is concerned she might have thrown up the pill she’d forced down her throat. Pregnant Sophie can’t bear the thought of killing her baby, and James must persuade her to go ahead with the plan. And Thomas and Hardy, always insistent about getting equal treatment from their parents, drive Simon crazy by demanding not only perfectly equal shares of cola to wash the capsules down, but that it be cooled with ice. (Nell adds to the odd, nutty tone by chiding the boys for spilling pop on the bed.)
This combination of dire seriousness and quirky drollness in the last reel is meant to reinforce the tightrope-walking combination Griffin has been aiming for throughout, but her film never manages to hit the target, always feeling somewhat off-center and off-putting. She is fortunate, however, in the performance of her son Roman, who is easily the most engaging person in the cast (though the dour manner of his younger brother Gilby and Hardy is also amusing). The other cast members are okay, though none can overcome the feel of caricature in the writing.
The film is technically proficient, though the gloomy mist that represents the imminent catastrophe comes off like a second-rate version of the death-of-the-firstborn effect that Cecil B. DeMille employed in “The Ten Commandments.” (To be fair, other films have tried similar menacingly foggy visuals with no better result.) But Franckie Diago’s design of the house’s interior is cozily right, Stephanie Collie’s costumes fill the bill, and Sam Renton’s cinematography is excellent despite a propensity for close-ups that can be oppressive. Lorne Balfe’s score is irreproachable, and except in the dragged-out final reel the editing by Martin Walsh and Pia Di Ciaula keeps matters moving along even when the script gets verbose.
There is, it should be noted, a twist at the very close that one can interpret in a variety of ways, from an embrace of skepticism in the face of official pronouncements to an indication of an impending zombie apocalypse. If “Silent Night” were more compelling, one might be inclined to puzzle over the possibilities. As it is, you’re more likely to let the opportunity pass unexplored.