In Silent Night, a darkly brilliant film from Australian director Otto Bathurst, Keira Knightley plays a mother trying to protect her daughter from the lust of a pagan lord (Craig Parkinson). The Lord murders a family that has been out on the frozen outskirts of town in the dead of night: It is a scene of random violence that would test the limits of the average Quentin Tarantino script and its one great element is Keira Knightley’s icy absence.
The scene is one of many sequences of death and destruction and cold endings. (The costumes, set, the makeup, the editing – all, every aspect of the film, from its atmospherics to its exploding cars to its orchestral soundtrack, is perfectly calibrated to lead you into the darkest recesses of the soul.) Silence, then, is the prevailing mood of Silent Night and Knightley is exactly the perfect actress to portray its terror and insanity.
When the Lord proposes a ritual sacrifice of the children that has been missing from the local grotto that year, Knightley is crying, so faint and subdued that the camera can only follow her legs. This is one of the last moments she will appear, she tells her daughter, as if it is the first. You do not get so much as a glimmer of a smile from the young heroine.
Instead, you get one of the many magnificent images from Bathurst’s chiller. This involves a grandmother performing a monologue of impossibly deep and simmering anguish on the snowy ground. The camera whirls slowly and yet things remain the same: the spinning starlight, the flickering candles in the torchlight and the women continually in silent darkness. It is so harsh and crushing and yet these are the same women who have been dancing in circles with their candles lit, joyfully celebrating the death of the Lord for several hours while almost everyone else seems blissfully oblivious to the proceedings.
Silent Night is one of the scariest movies of the year and one of the most singular works of art. Read more about it in our interview with director Otto Bathurst on this week’s Culture Notes podcast.