Black comedies about the collapse of civilisation are such an established subgenre it’s not even the first time “Silent Night” star Keira Knightley has played in this sandbox (see “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World”).
The impending end of humanity is a great plot device to peel back the veneer of politeness and respect and show the simmering bitchiness, hatred, jealousy and fear underneath, and that’s what’s happening to a well-to-do English family, determined to spend their last Christmas with their nearest and dearest.
We meet the characters both at home as they prepare for the festivities and in cars as they make their way to the country mansion setting. In short order the tone is well established, when the prepubescent Art (Roman Griffin Davis, from “Jojo Rabbit”) is slicing carrots for the Christmas feast. Dad Simon (Matthew Goode) is outside chasing chickens all over the yard – as we later find out, it’s been decided that it’s kinder to let foxes get them than the alternative (which the story hasn’t yet revealed).
When one of them smacks into the kitchen window and startles Art, he cuts his finger, uttering a string of profanities you don’t usually hear from a child and bleeding everywhere. His loving but prickly parents, Simon and Nell (Knightley) are as understanding as they are slightly terrified of embarrassment in that particular British way, all of it underpinned by the language of modern Brits, laced with profanity.
Even though the surroundings are refined, everyone is dressed to the nines and the manners and human interaction all very proper, Nell later doesn’t bat an eyelid when asking Art if he called the icily menacing Kitty (Davida McKenzie), the daughter of Nell and Simon’s friends, ‘a cunt’. Yes, the early scenes establish, it’s that kind of movie.
A cloud of poisonous gas is descending on the British Isles, due to hit some time on Boxing Day. We never learn why – one of the many family arguments is about whether it’s the Russians or blowback from the way humanity has treated the environment. But it appears in several scenes as a menacing thunderstorm rolling across the landscape, accompanied by a yellowish haze and miniature tornadoes that herald its arrival.
And when it arrives, everyone is going to die in agony unless they take the government-issued pills that put them to sleep peacefully in advance. In one of the sharper slices of satire, the infrastructure that’s apparently distributed the means for mass suicide is depicted with official-looking medical packets and a chirpy how-to one of the characters watches on his phone, much like the mandates around masks and COVID vaccines we’ve seen in the real world.
In the shadow of such a catastrophe, the relationships are a roiling mass of conflict. Sandra (Annabelle Wallis) has always been in lust with James (Sope Dirisu), fond of but bored by her own husband Tony (Rufus Jones). James’ American girlfriend Sophie (Lily Rose Depp) is expecting, and has decided not to take the government-issued pill, even though James, Tony and Simon (all friends from university) made a pact that they and their families and loved ones would.
Sandra and Tony are terrified of upsetting their crotchety daughter Kitty. Gay couple Bella (Lucy Punch) and her girlfriend Alex (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) seem to have some unspoken resentment, and as the rest of the gang are sitting around arguing over who shagged who and where their lives all went wrong, Alex is the only one who understands that one of their number had fallen victim to a paedophile as a kid.
And in the middle of it all, Art is asking questions none of the adults want to wrap their heads around – what happens to all the homeless people and undocumented immigrants who didn’t get the suicide pills? What proof is there the gas cloud is going to kill everyone? And why don’t the adults just say what they mean instead of dancing around ugly truths for the sake of appearances?
Some of the relationships and conflicts are plumbed (and depicted) better than others, and debut writer/director Camille Griffin leans more heavily into the coming cataclysm as part of the story rather than just a device to stir the pot, a consequence of which is that the comedy dries up somewhat as the film morphs into apocalypse horror (albeit with a few vestigial flashes of humour).
All of which leaves the whole a little less than the parts. The tone and approach of the whole film can be summed up up in one of the trailer moments – when Nell cheerily explains during her last ever Zoom call with her gracious and dignified mother, Nicole (Trudie Styler) that Simon and Tony have ransacked a petrol station for the dessert everyone forgot to provision. ‘What fun’, the well-bred older woman exclaims happily, as if there’d been a successful fox hunt.
The whole thing could be a lot more cohesive but individual sequences, ideas and friction between characters effectively skewers the classism that’s part of the British psyche (it’s also telling that the sole American character and the kid are the smart ones, the Brits all idiots more interested in projecting a facade than facing the truth), and there are some genuinely funny moments.