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Silent Night Review: Last Christmas

It's an especially strange time to be watching movies about the end of the world right now, let alone making them. One glance at Twitter gives even the most mundane weekday a certain apocalyptic vibe, and with that in mind it can be hard to let yourself drift into a fictional version of that same feeling, no matter how heightened or imaginative the fiction in question might be. It can feel deflating to confront a made-up version of humanity's demise, and it's even trickier when dark comedy is thrown into the mix. When it's done right, though, it can be a rewarding, even sublime, movie experience.

All of which is to say that, narratively speaking, Camille Griffin's black comedy "Silent Night" is an incredible exercise in threading a very particular needle. Many of its ingredients are familiar, perhaps too familiar in an age of pandemics and climate change catastrophes, and the emotional stakes on both an individual and collective level are by turns nerve-twisting and devastating. Yet there's a sense of freedom lurking within the familiarity, an ever-so-slight unmooring from our own lives, that allows the film to creep in and get under our own skin, to slowly dissolve the guards we have up thanks to reading the news every day. As that happens, and the film's heart creeps in like the slow-moving gas cloud at the center of its plot, "Silent Night" works a peculiar dark magic, leaving an impression that won't soon fade.

Apocalypse Eve

At an idyllic manor house in the English countryside, Nell (Keira Knightley) and Simon (Matthew Goode) are gathering all of their friends for Christmas, making all the requisite preparations along the way. As couples Alex (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) and Bella (Lucy Punch), Tony (Rufus Jones) and Sandra (Annabelle Wallis), and James (Sope Dirisu) and Sophie (Lily-Rose Depp) all make their way to the house with their own sets of issues in tow, the family cooks a meal, lays in supplies, and gets into their formal wear. But it's not an ordinary Christmas, no matter how many ordinary seasonal trappings are strewn throughout the house. A poison cloud of gas that's already devastated much of the world is sweeping across the globe, headed for the British Isles, where experts say it will kill every living thing. In anticipation of this, the government has handed out capsules for everyone, allowing them the chance to "die with dignity." Faced with this crisis, Nell, Simon, and their loved ones are fully prepared to make the absolute most of their last Christmas, then face what's coming. But some, like their son Art (Roman Griffin Davis), aren't so sure.

As the film begins and lays out this particular set of dilemmas, Griffin's narrative takes on a somewhat familiar "Keep Calm and Carry On" approach as it brings all the ingredients of the story together. Michael Buble songs are playing, everyone's preparing to celebrate, the kids are making sure there's sticky toffee pudding in the house, and some partygoers are more concerned about how many roast potatoes there are than how soon the literal dark cloud of doom might come for them. There's a sense that Griffin is not only playing by familiar holiday dramedy rules, but savoring them, working through every literal tragicomic step along the way. It's engaging, and even comforting, but it's all just table setting for the real meat of the story, which is where the filmmakers really make their premise and their stellar ensemble cast really count.

Silent Night, Anxious Night

There's a wonderful, longstanding tradition among the Brits of peppering ghost stories in among all the bright lights and cheer that come with Christmas, and while "Silent Night" is not a ghost story, the film's overall worldbuilding certainly draws inspiration and strength from that practice. The home where nearly all the action takes place is awash with bright twinkling lights, cheerful nutcrackers, and presents piled beneath the tree, but cinematographer Sam Renton also takes full advantage of December twilight and the imposing framework of the house itself to lend a foreboding look to even the cheeriest of images. There's darkness closing in on this story even before the poison cloud can make its appearance, and the film's visuals sell that idea with every frame.

The cast, each impressive in their own way, only adds to this sense of impending holiday doom by infusing every scene with a sense not just of melancholy, but of pure, panic-laden fear behind their eyes. There are moments of unbridled joy in the film, along with moments of unparalleled sadness, aching longing, and pure, raw honesty even as the holiday facades stay up and the Christmas candles stay lit. Knightley and Goode are particularly effective at carrying that feeling, as is Davis, who takes all the promise he showed in "Jojo Rabbit" and cranks it up to 11 with a heartbreaking performance. Amid all the heartbreak, though, there are also bits of tremendous comedy, particularly from Punch and Wallis, who bring more of the deranged element of apocalyptic Christmas to the proceedings, and sell every moment of it.

Through each major ingredient, from the production design to the lighting to the music to the script and performances, "Silent Night" presents not just a view of the possible last Christmas on Earth, but a view of every Christmas any of us can remember. If you take Christmas seriously, either because you love the holiday or because you love someone who loves the holiday, you know that there's always a certain amount of pressure to get it "right," to make everything fit in just so, to pack the holiday with all the merriment you can because there's always the lurking sense that it could be the last one. If you're all-in on Christmas, Christmas Eve really can feel like the last night on Earth, a night you don't want to end. It's that feeling, and the dread that it can conjure, that's most effectively captured by "Silent Night," and it's what makes it a truly effective, vividly dark and funny holiday film.

'Silent Night' is in theaters and on demand December 3.