Producers: Sherryl Clark, David Bernardi and Rob Van Norden Director: Roger Michell Screenplay: Christian Torpe Cast: Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Mia Wasikowska, Sam Neill, Lindsay Duncan, Rainn Wilson, Bex Taylor-Klaus and Anson Boon Distributor: Screen Media Films
Roger Michell’s directorial career has had a good many ups and relatively few downs; unfortunately, this is one of the latter, though it has some genuine virtues. Based on Bille August’s Danish film “Stille hjerte” (2014), it’s an ensemble drama about assisted suicide that starts out promisingly but becomes artificial, with a final act that grows heavy-handedly melodramatic.
Part of the problem derives from performances that might be better suited to the stage than the screen, where they can come across as strident. That unfortunately applies to Susan Sarandon, who stars as Lily, a take-charge woman facing the debilitating effects of ALS. Her supportive husband Paul (Sam Neill), a doctor, has come to terms with her condition, which has left her no longer able to use her left arm and barely able to negotiate the stairs on her own, and with her decision to end her life before she becomes unable even to swallow food—or take the drink to which her pain bills have been added for fatal effect.
He also has agreed to Lily’s decision to invite their family and closest friend to their beautiful home on the Connecticut shore for one final get-together before her death. So there arrive the couple’s two grown children, sisters Jennifer (Kate Winslet) and Anna (Mia Wasikowska), along with Jennifer’s husband Michael (Rainn Wilson) and Anna’s same-sex partner Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus) and Jennifer and Michael’s son Jonathan (Anson Boon). The final member of the group is Lily’s oldest friend Elizabeth (Lindsay Duncan), who, along with Paul, was her college classmate.
The first half of the film is the better of the two. Sarandon, as is often the case, comes on very strong, and her aggressive attitude is rather exhausting; thankfully she’s accompanied among those of more advanced age by Neill and Duncan, both of whom are agreeably low-key. Jennifer and Anna are presented as bickering polar opposites, the former a control-freak housewife and the latter a high-strung slacker, and neither actress comes off particularly well, with Winslet trying strenuously to hide her attractiveness under dark, frumpy hair and glasses while Wasikowska flutters about almost hysterically as an obviously troubled soul. Wilson, meanwhile, tones down his customary tics, but still serves as the primary comic relief, being depicted as a dweeb who spouts pedantic bits of useless information at regular intervals. In the youngest generation, Taylor-Klaus has a cheeky sense of vibrancy as tomboyish Chris, but Boon is pretty much a cipher as Jonathan.
Despite the stumbles in the acting and the affectation that creeps into the dialogue, however, the initial segment of the film works reasonably well, with some graceful moments like a walk on the beach (complete with some naughty memories) as balance. Nothing can compensate entirely for the essential implausibility of the underlying premise, but things go reasonably well for a while.
It’s during a long dinner scene at roughly the midway point that matters begin to go decidedly awry. Though there are moments of sweet recollection as gifts are handed out in a mock holiday celebration, revelations and recriminations break out that show deep fissures in the family dynamic. Even worse, a discovery by Jennifer—and the highly charged reaction to it that brings her and Anna together at last—threaten to disrupt Lily’s plans. A third act requires obstacles of some sort, but those in “Blackbird” are rather obvious contrivances. Though the film ends on a note of reconciliation, it never fully recovers.
“Blackbird” has a high-toned look, with production design (John Paul Kelly) and cinematography (Mike Eley) that are models of good taste. (Despite the American setting, the film was shot in England.) Kristina Hetherington’s editing is smooth, and the background score supervised by Selena Arizanovic properly nostalgic.
But ultimately there’s a sense of contrivance about the film that keeps it from becoming the moving human document it aspires to be. It winds up feeling like a respectable cable film on a self-consciously important topic that, as a result, has attracted a first-rate cast who do committed but only sporadically convincing work. And, of course, it will upset some viewers with its relative lack of concern for the moral issues involved.