What would you do at the end of the world? It’s a question that has been the subject of so many books and films that it borders on the cliché. Yet the diversity of responses it reveals and what they say about humanity never fails to intrigue.
In Silent night, the director Camille Griffin asks the question to a group of more or less privileged British friends. They are members of the upper class and their ideas about their wealth, security, and general empathy for the rest of humanity come under scrutiny. This choppy apocalyptic film won’t hit at times, but its gripping final act, a handful of standout performances, and attempted commentary on class and climate change will likely keep most audiences engaged.
The bottom line
Worth it for the performances and the captivating final act.
Naturally, the film begins the day before the end of the world. Nell (Keira Knightley) and her husband Simon (Matthew Goode) jostle each other in their lavish home. Their school friends, invited for Christmas dinner, will be there at all times and nothing seems ready. Nell works above the oven to heat up a paltry portion of potatoes while her husband runs around the park trying to grab a chicken. Their son Art (Roman Griffin Davis) is busy chopping carrots until he slices off his skin and begins to bleed, and his twin brothers, Hardy (Hardy Griffin Davis) and Thomas (Gilby Griffin Davis), are not found.
Meanwhile, driving to the couple’s house are their friends, whom we meet effectively. There’s self-centered Sandra (Annabelle Wallis), her well-meaning yawn of husband, Tony (Rufus Jones), and their obnoxious child, Kitty (Davida McKenzie). Bella (Lucy Punch) and her partner Alex (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), who is calm and more attentive, are in the next car. And following them, James (Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù) and Sophie (Lily-Rose Depp), whose perfectly well-meaning guest roles make them sadly forgettable.
The purpose of the evening, according to Nell, is to focus on love and forgiveness (although she is wary of exactly who needs to forgive). They will laugh, remember and imbibe. What they won’t do is think about the end of the world and how they will all die in the morning.
In Silent night, the apocalypse isn’t caused by zombies or asteroids – it’s caused by years of neglect. As Art artfully puts it at the table, “For years the planet has been soaking up everyone’s filthy garbage and it’s had enough of it, it can’t take it anymore so it spits it out like fucking shit at the world.” In the morning, the government told them, a harmful gas will descend on the planet and kill everyone.
While the logic of this End Times is a bit shaky, the premise allows writer-director Griffin to use the film for more philosophical purposes. The threat of the end of the world sparks intense but limited debates among friends about security, climate change and collective responsibility. The most of Silent night relies on the strength of those conversations, but the film could have pushed its ideas further instead of rehashing familiar and sometimes elementary observations.
Where he succeeds, however, is in his treatment from the perspective of children. In fact, adults are the least interesting part of Silent night. While the four children – Kitty, Art, Hardy and Thomas – hold differing views on the end of society, some more conspiratorial than others, they are ready to engage in a heated and heated debate. Roman Griffin Davis as an Art is particularly exciting to watch. Attached 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 recognizes the urgency of their situation and, without revealing too much the story, their cowardice.
Cinematographer Sam Renton takes on the job of adding tension to these passionate moments by generously using close-ups of each other’s faces. Of them all, Alex – with his eyebrows raised and wide eyes – feels the most aligned with the audience.
All along Silent night, I found myself in a constant state of longing. I wanted more of the characters and their debates. It’s disappointing but not surprising that Howell-Baptiste and Dìrísù (the only black characters in the film) mostly fade into the background.
The discussions could have put more weight to highlight the issues of the past few hours. But there are glimmers. In a scene with the kids, Nell articulates the core beginnings of the film. “We just want you to understand that as parents we are not to blame,” she says. “It is not our choice, and it is not our fault. It is clearly not your fault either. His words are met with deafening silence and a heavy question hangs in the air: who, if not we, will be responsible for the end of the world?