Apocalyptic stories are no strangers at the Toronto International Film Festival, my favorite of all time (granted one that predates my time at the festival) being Don McKellar’s TIFF award-winning Last Night, in which the Toronto native imagines how a group of city residents count down humanity’s final hours and emerges with a drama that is captivating and oddly, beautifully romantic. This year, the festival chose writer/director Camille Griffin’s Silent Night, another end-of-the-world story that like McKellar’s film tries to strike a tone beyond pure horror, but one doesn’t quite work with pieces that don’t quite fit. Griffin deserves credit for taking the risk, but it is one in which pay off proves elusive.
Griffin cast a ringer in making Keira Knightley the lead in a starry British ensemble. The actor, after all, was one of the stars of Love Actually, which has grown into a Yuletide classic in the nearly two decades since its release. And Silent Night is set firmly in that Christmas movie tradition with a soundtrack full of Xmas tunes in a story in which Knightley as Nell and her husband Simon (Matthew Goode) host holiday dinner for an upper-crust group of longtime friends.
Silent Night‘s first act plays like every other comedy in which dysfunctional people gather for a celebration. Mismatched couple Sandra (Annabelle Wallis) and Tony (Rufus Jones) treat their bratty, entitled teen daughter Kitty (Davida McKenzie) as if she is a small child, running to the store for sticky toffee pudding to stave off a meltdown when Nell admits she forgot it. James (Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù) arrives with his young girlfriend Sophie (Lily-Rose Depp), whom none of the older women like. Boisterous, opinionated Bella (Lucy Punch) has a patient, quieter partner, Alex (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), making the case that opposite do, indeed, attract.
So far, so much English drawing-room comedy, but then the talk turns to what is coming in the morning, even as the adults try to keep bad new from Kitty and Nell and Simon’s three boys Art, Thomas, and Hardy (played by the director’s own children, Roman Griffin-Davis of Jojo Rabbit fame and twins Gilby and Hardy Griffin-Davis). Art is not having it. He keeps up with events and accuses the adults of destroying the world, despite warnings from Greta (Thunberg). Far more sensible than any of the adults, he questions the “solution” the British government has arrived at in face of impending doom and argues with his parents for their plan to blindly follow instructions. (It would only be too easy to read the film as a kind of response to current circumstances – but Silent Night was announced and shooting started pre-pandemic.
Griffin is ambitious in her first feature, but as the tone shifts from dry English wit to black humor to outright horror, the film goes off the rails. A talented cast gets trapped playing tiresome, thinly sketched characters. It is hard to feel the horror of the situation with these people as the subset of humanity facing annihilation. The big exception to that is Art. Roman Griffin-Davis is a gifted child actor and Art is the one character with whom the audience can completely empathize. Unfortunately, he is also a tell. Following the arc of the character, it is only too easy to predict not just how Silent Night with end but also its final shot. When that comes, it feels like a punch line to a joke that went on for too long.