Christmas movies aren’t for everyone. Generally they’re warm-hearted, a bit cheesy and end with everything wrapped up in a neat bow.
There are exceptions to the rule, such as the dark comedy of Bad Santa, the twisted glee of Gremlins and bloody horror of Krampus. Even in those movies though, you’re typically expecting things to work out in the end and most of the time, they do.
Writer and director Camille Griffin’s impressive debut won’t be for all tastes with its pitch-black humour. However, even naysayers won’t be able to deny that it’s a unique Christmas movie. It might bring Keira Knightley back to the festive genre, but Silent Night is the anti-Love Actually.
Things certainly start off in traditional fashion. Nell (Knightley) is rushing around trying to organise a Christmas feast for her old friends with the help of her husband Simon (Matthew Goode).
As their friends arrive in steady fashion, we get the usual pleasantries as they catch up although there’s definitely something they’re not talking about. We get hints, such as Nell only being able to offer one roast potato per person, but it’s otherwise a standard Christmas gathering.
Even when Nell starts talking about forgiveness, it just sounds like the typical festive chatter between old friends. But when Griffin does show her cards, Silent Night changes from a Richard Curtis-esque festive movie and into something much darker. Not that you’d know it from the characters, who just crack open another bottle of prosecco.
If we’re sounding vague, it’s because Silent Night itself slowly reveals its true context. When it was first announced in January 2020, the movie was described as being about “an extended family having a Christmas dinner in a country setting”. While that is true, it doesn’t really tell half of the story, and the joy is finding that out as you watch.
While we don’t want to spoil it, we do want to warn you that the movie isn’t a fluffy festive outing. It’s frequently caustic and dark in its humour, but it’s not mean-spirited and is very, very funny as a result. They just might be the kind of laughs where you feel bad for laughing.
Griffin’s script is brought to life with one of the best casts of 2021. Joining the lead duo of Knightley and Goode (who are both excellent) are Peaky Blinders star Annabelle Wallis, The Good Place’s Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Motherland’s Lucy Punch, Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù, Rufus Jones and Lily-Rose Depp.
In lesser hands, this group of upper-class friends (who are all varying degrees of awful) would be painful to watch. The cast is uniformly terrific though, led by the excellent Knightley and Goode, and they land the tricky balance of dark, dry humour and genuine pathos.
You might not want to spend Christmas with these characters in real life, but you do care for them.
The adult cast are almost upstaged by Roman Griffin Davis as Nell and Simon’s son Art, who rails against what his parents have begrudgingly accepted. Proving Jojo Rabbit was no fluke, he is superb in a weighty role which includes one of the movie’s darkest scenes.
It’s Art who raises most of the themes that the movie explores, such as the climate crisis and class issues. Because that’s the other strength of Silent Night: it has something to say as well. For all the dark humour, there’s an anger coursing underneath and while it doesn’t have the time to explore everything, it’s another aspect that sets the movie apart.
For all of its impending doom, you’ll still likely expect the movie to move into happier territory. It’s Christmas, after all. Griffin is having none of it though and isn’t interested in leaving you warm and fuzzy. There’s still heart and emotion in Silent Night, but if you want a neat finale, rewatch Love Actually or any number of Christmas movies.
Instead, Silent Night accepts that life is messy, especially at Christmas time with friends and family. While we could have done without the movie’s final bleak moment, it doesn’t undo the good work done before as it’s a movie that will linger with you.