Susan Sarandon is the terminally ill mother presiding over one final family get-together
Dir: Roger Michell. UK. 2019. 97mins
An ailing matriarch gathers her family together for one last weekend before she kills herself in Blackbird, a restrained drama full of familiar revelations and telegraphed tear-jerking moments. Susan Sarandon leads this warm ensemble, giving the melancholy material the occasional jolt, and director Roger Michell provides a refined air, inviting us to enjoy our time with these people, despite the prevailing sadness surrounding their reunion. But as lovely as Blackbird can be, it’s never particularly insightful or compelling — for a film meant to celebrate life, the storytelling is curiously moribund.
Reveals itself to be an unassuming but predictable tale
This Toronto premiere (based on the 2014 Danish film Silent Heart) will appeal to older audiences, and it has considerable star power thanks to Oscar-winners Sarandon and Kate Winslet. Blackbird’s investigation of thorny family dynamics gives the movie a sturdy marketing hook — think of it as a far tamer variation on August: Osage County’s theatrics — although mediocre reviews may limit commercial prospects.
At her beachside Connecticut home, Lily (Sarandon) and her husband Paul (Sam Neill) have summoned their adult children Jennifer (Winslet) and Anna (Mia Wasikowska) and their significant others for an important gathering. Diagnosed with ALS, Lily doesn’t want to become a prisoner of her body, deciding that she will end her life after this weekend. Her loved ones have prepared for this trip for weeks, but they’re struggling with saying goodbye.
Initially, Michell (Notting Hill) extracts the wry humour from this macabre setup: The whole family has gathered at this gorgeous location for a few relaxing days, all so they can toast Lily before she commits suicide by drinking a toxic mixture. Sarandon plays this wife and mother as a faded firebrand, still fully in control of her faculties but disillusioned by the inability to control her unresponsive left hand. Perhaps for herself as much as for her family, Lily cracks jokes to make the reality of what’s to occur seem less tragic.
Eventually, though, Blackbird (which, like Silent Heart, was written by Christian Torpe) reveals itself to be an unassuming but predictable tale. Sibling animosity, relationship woes, long-buried secrets and life-affirming messages are all in store and, while the cast do a reasonably good job of infusing the story with heart, it doesn’t add much to our shared knowledge of watching bittersweet family dramas such as this. In a way, Michell’s good taste undercuts the material, which is so well-mannered that it never considers just how radical (and darkly, grimly hilarious) Lily’s decision is. Instead, the film is as polished and nondescript as Lily’s immaculate house.
This is not to discount some strong work from the likes of Neill as Lily’s supportive, quietly grieving husband and Lindsay Duncan playing Lily’s oldest friend, who’s the only person outside of her family invited to the occasion. Less successful is Winslet, who wrestles with a muddled character. As the older daughter Jennifer, the actress has to convey this buttoned-up woman’s uptight personality — she’s judgmental and controlling — and then become rudderless once shocking discoveries start emerging. The performance is too mannered, although she’s much better simply playing off Sarandon as a daughter who’s never entirely understood her free-spirited mother.
Much of the rest of the supporting players are assigned broad character types. Rainn Wilson is Jennifer’s nerdy husband, while Wasikowska is the token “troubled younger daughter.” Michell allows his ensemble the space to feel like a family with all its mini-tensions and casual shorthand, and quite often the understated ease with which these actors interact can be pleasing. But after being largely forgettable for most of its runtime, Blackbird shifts gears, introducing plot twists meant to add suspense to the proceedings. But these just feel artificial, forcing the characters to behave in ways that are in stark contrast to how they’ve been established.
It’s a pity that Sarandon’s assured presence isn’t enough to overcome the film’s significant shortcomings. Lily swears she has no regrets about her drastic course of action, and the movie never questions her decision, even though it is illegal in the state where she resides. Where much of Blackbird is pedestrian, her performance hints at something mysterious — namely, how a person can reclaim her life by taking it. This movie’s pat resolutions lack the complexity to comprehend something so potentially profound.
Production companies: Millennium Media, Busted Shark, SF Studios
International sales: Millennium Media, firstname.lastname@example.org
Producers: Sherryl Clark, David Bernardi, Rob Van Norden
Screenplay: Christian Torpe, based on Silent Heart written by Christian Torpe
Production design: John Paul Kelly
Editing: Kristina Hetherington
Cinematography: Mike Eley
Music: Peter Gregson
Main cast: Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Mia Wasikowska, Sam Neill, Lindsay Duncan, Rainn Wilson, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Anson Boon