They’ve saved the feel-bad movie of the year for Christmas! Here’s our review of Silent Night.

Christmas is, generally, a time of joy and togetherness – or at least that’s what festive movies try their best to convey. It’s an occasion on which, at its best, the onslaught of family, food and frivolity serves as a distraction from whatever else is going on in the world. But what if that whatever else was too big to ignore? What if it was a wall of poisonous gas spreading across the planet, leading to immediate, painful death for everybody in its path? Step forward, Silent Night – the feel-bad movie of the year. It probably should’ve been called In The Bleakest Midwinter.

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Written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Camille Griffin, the film is an acidic and spiky spin on the Christmas comedy. Griffin takes the Richard Curtis template and sticks it in a blender with a load of Lars von Trier sad-athons. The result is an unusual, difficult confection that rewards those with a strong stomach for movie misery and ensures that even a few notes of Michael Bublé will forever yield traumatic flashbacks.

The story begins in fairly typical festive style, with middle-class mother Nell (Keira Knightley) every bit the archetypal frazzled host, trying to make sure the veg is chopped, the wine is chilled and the kids aren’t trying to kill each other while husband Simon (Matthew Goode) is in the garden. Their friends are on their way to the secluded country home, including the over-bearing Sandra (Annabelle Wallis), her pleasant-but-dull husband Tony (Rufus Jones) and their nightmarish daughter. There’s also couple Bella (Lucy Punch) and Alex (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), as well as oncologist James (Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù) and his young, American girlfriend Sophie (Lily-Rose Depp).

It’s a packed ensemble cast, but Griffin’s script gives everyone plenty to do, splitting characters off into groups in order to make the most of the actors’ chemistry and the interpersonal relationships inherent among characters who’ve known each other for decades. The imminent apocalypse is very much the elephant in the room and provides a backdrop for secrets to tumble out, gallows humour to fly and emotions to run white-hot. Even if the cavalcade of revelations are relatively obvious – who secretly slept with who? – they’re delivered with enough panache and comic flair to work.

There’s always pressure on a Christmas gathering, with whoever’s in charge working desperately hard to keep everybody happy. That unusual, tense environment is amplified many hundreds of times by the fact everyone in this room knows it’s their last night alive and that there’s a very specific purpose to their presence – which I won’t spoil – in this house and with these people. Knightley’s jittery politeness is deliciously unsettling, particularly as Goode stands alongside her looking as if all of the suffering in the world is lurking right beneath the surface of his forced smile of welcome.

The standout, though, is Roman Griffin Davis – of Jojo Rabbit fame – as Knightley and Goode’s eldest son Art. He is full of resentment for the fate to which everyone else seems to have resigned themselves and broiling with rage at the generation above him for refusing to listen to Greta Thunberg. Despite one assertion around the dinner table that “the Russians” are responsible for the gas, Art is certain that this is an environmental reckoning which was once preventable. Davis’s performance is nuanced and well-calibrated, embodying a note of righteous anger and idealism amid a sea of adults whose complacency led them to give up long ago.

But there are missed opportunities scattered throughout. Howell-Baptiste’s intriguing character, positioned on the sidelines of the group, doesn’t feel fully explored and another character’s apparently explosive secret pregnancy rather fizzles to nothing. It’s also a shame the movie never really interrogates the unique circumstances of its characters. While the film nods to the immense privilege of the uniformly wealthy gathering – “posh people like to keep secrets”, Depp’s character remarks in an early scene – it never quite digs its nails beneath the surface enough to make any concrete point. We spend so much time with the haves that we inevitably start thinking about the have-nots, even as the movie focuses tightly on a home in which the wine is of a decent vintage – even with food supplies dwindling.

Besides that missed opportunity for satire, though, Griffin seldom puts a foot wrong with Silent Night. Its comedy-focused first half almost lulls you into a false sense of security, with the third act ratcheting up the tension and stress to almost unbearable levels of panic. At the apex of this horror, Griffin delivers images of memorable gruesomeness, but also well-judged comic set pieces which cut through the tension without ever allowing it to dissipate. By the time the credits roll, it feels like blessed relief.

Whether all of this is enjoyable rather comes down to your personal tolerance for the bleak. It feels too reductive to say that Griffin has made an anti-Christmas movie, but she has certainly produced something confrontational and odd in which even the silliest comedy is only ever a distraction from the all-consuming gloom of inevitable and unavoidable death. It might not be one to watch with a glass of Baileys and box of Quality Street. This Christmas is anything but merry.

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