At her beachside Connecticut home, Lily (Susan Sarandon) and her husband Paul (Sam Neill) have invited their adult daughters Jennifer (Kate Winslet) and Anna (Mia Wasikowska) plus their partners. Diagnosed with ALS, Lily decides to end her life before she becomes imprisoned in her own body.
Blackbird starts from a place of humour. Like Other People or Funny People, laughs can be found in the tragic. The whole family gather in this gorgeous home to share the last few days with her mother before she commits suicide. Lily appears to be in control of her faculties, except her unresponsive left hand. Lily doesn’t see the tragedy in her death, but her children don’t feel the same way.
Eventually, Blackbird becomes a predictable tale of sibling rivalry, buried family secrets and relationship problems. Director Roger Mitchell tries too hard to create a seriously bittersweet family drama that he loses any of the black comedy potential. Lily’s decision to end her life before she loses any of her firebrand personality to illness is actually radically dark. Sarandon’s performance, while strong, hints that there is more beneath the surface that is never truly addressed in the script.
Whilst the two sisters immediately start quarrelling, the family suspend any personal issues to honour their mother’s wishes. They celebrate Christmas in autumn, take morning walks on the beach and exchange gifts. Everything bobs along pleasantly, aside from a few quarrels. In the last third of the film springs an unnecessary revelation. The late-breaking, predictable drama is an extra hurdle that makes Blackbird lose all realism and all bittersweetness.
The end is rather moving, helped by Sam Neill’s emotive performance. The end credits just come too soon. After the bickering and quarrelling, revelations of guilt and the possibility of illicit relationships, the finale feels too rushed. There should at least be an extra fifteen minutes on the end of this movie that deals with the aftermath.
Blackbird is saved by some strong performances. Sam Neill, as Lily’s quietly supportive husband, is especially strong and wasted in the one-dimensional role. Lindsay Duncan, as Lily’s oldest friend, has the carefree dignity of someone who had immense fun in her younger years. Kate Winslet’s performance is less successful, with oldest daughter Jennifer being underwritten as an uptight and controlling mother and wife. No wig and glasses will ever make Kate Winslet appear dowdy.
Mia Wasikowska struggles to build a sibling rapport with Winslet, the pair of them cliches. Winslet is judgemental and too buttoned-up, Wasikowska’s Anna is troubled and lost. Rainn Wilson plays it straight as Jennifer’s nerdy husband and Bex Taylor-Klaus is Anna’s on/off partner. The family’s interactions feel forced and often they slip into conservations that feel out of character. Emerging talent Anson Boon is one of the star players, his performance as the shy and nervous grandson is standout amongst a much more experienced cast. If this was a play it may have worked a little better, on-screen these characters can’t quite fill the space of the large oversized beige house.
In a smartly observed touch, the teenagers and the older generation understand Anna’s relationship with Chris (played by gender non-binary actor Taylor-Klaus). At another point, Liz and Lily casually mentioned their college experimentation with lesbianism (but Lily wasn’t sure if she got her technique right). Liz and Lily are such interesting characters, who have clearly lived an interesting life, their final hurdle drama feels like a disservice.
Adapted by screenwriter Christian Torpe from his own text for the Danish movie Silent Heart, this English-language version wastes some of the best actors on predictable cliches. These people don’t feel real, surrounding by a taupe world of kitchen islands and brunch on the balcony. However rich they are and however caught up they are with Lily’s illness; their actions feel unnatural. This unnaturalness makes it hard to empathise with their actions and some of the dialogue feels like a parody of the white American liberal elite.
Blackbird is a collection of fantastic performances and missed opportunities. A change in tone in the final act and a too abrupt ending makes this movie a rather predictable family drama.
Blackbird is out on DVD now
by Amelia Harvey
Amelia is a freelance writer, frustrated novelist and occasional wrangling of international students. She is especially interested in LBGTQ culture and 1960s and 70s music. She also writes for Frame Rated, The People’s Movies and Unkempt Magazine, amongst others. Her favourite films include Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Moulin Rouge and Closer. You can find her on Twitter @MissAmeliaNancy and letterboxd @amelianancy