A terminally ill mother (Susan Sarandon) unites her family together for one last weekend before her planned (illegal) assisted suicide. That's not exactly your "feel good" plot of the year and maybe on its surface, too much of a downer to want to tackle in the year that is 2020. But in "Blackbird," there is a tremendous ensemble doing what they can, trapped in a story that feels dead on arrival.
If the premise seems somewhat familiar to movie buffs, that's because "Blackbird" is a remake of the 2014 Danish film, "Silent Heart." In this Americanized-version, the matriarch Lily (Sarandon) doesn't have much time left. Her loving, willful husband, Paul (Sam Neill) is at her side, and is on-board with his wife's decision. Per her wishes, Lily wants her grown children and only grandson to come to their home for one last weekend of familial bliss.
But as anyone with a family knows, the idea of getting together for an extended time with family under one roof is often much more pleasant than the reality of such an occasion. Jennifer (Kate Winslet) is the stuffy older sister, with her nerdy but loving husband, Michael (Rainn Wilson) and teenage son, Jonathan (Anson Boon) in tow. Lily's other daughter Anna (Mia Wasikowska) has always been a bit of a black sheep, and seems to be the only one questioning the oddity of this entire situation...she enters with her girlfriend, Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus). And even though this was meant to be a family affair, Lily's age-old friend Liz (Lindsay Duncan) also received an invite.
Tensions flare as sisters reunite and as everyone attempts to deal with the elephant in the room in their own ways. For the first half of the film, it is a tremendous achievement in acting, the sort of film that focuses on characters in a room, usually one-on-one, and you can just feel the actors giving to one another in ways that raises the bar for everyone involved.
Despite this, "Blackbird" begins to flutter when about mid-way through you realize that this film doesn't quite know how to deal with its own weighty topics or even its inhabitants. Some implausible melodrama is introduced...some unnecessary twists that give the whole venture more of a soap opera spin than probably intended. You realize that there is a hollow, shallow feeling to the story being told, and the ending - while predictable of course from the get-go - doesn't pack the emotional punch that it should.
The performances are reason enough to check out "Blackbird"...this movie is far from a slog despite its slow, deliberate pace. But usually characters with conflict are much more interesting than characters without, and Sarandon's Lily in the middle of this whole thing is just too resolute in what she wants. It nearly drains the film of dramatic energy and removes any sort of emotional anchor for the audience. We sympathize and relate with the children, but the Sam Neill is painfully undercooked in his role as the "supportive husband," and I feel like the whole Paul/Lily relationship needed something...more...and not quite the crazy twist the film provides for them.
"Blackbird" doesn't quite work as well as "Silent Heart," but if you find it on streaming and are interested in the subject or the actors involved, I'd be surprised if you wind up pulling the plug.
Run Time: 1 hour 37 minutes.
Starring: Susan Sarandon, Sam Neill, Mia Wasikowska, Kate Winslet, Lindsay Duncan, Rainn Wilson, Anson Boon, Bex Taylor-Klaus.
Directed by Roger Michell ("My Cousin Rachel," "Hyde Park on Hudson," "Morning Glory," "Notting Hill").
"Blackbird" is streaming as of Friday, September 18th, 2020.
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