Director Roger Michell explores terminal illness and family dysfunction in his new drama “Blackbird”, an adaptation of a 2014 Danish film titled “Silent Heart”. Michell brings together a notable cast to tell the story of a family matriarch choosing to end her life rather than succumb to the degenerating effects of ALS. From that alone you can tell “Blackbird” is dealing with some weighty themes.
Screen vet Susan Sarandon plays ALS sufferer Lily, the matriarch of a progressive and (we quickly learn) rather distant family. She and her doctor husband Paul (Sam Neill) live in a posh Connecticut seaside estate which is the setting for the entire story. With her ALS already taking away the use of her right arm and her prognosis progressively grim, Lily decides to end her life, determined to go out on her own terms and with her family’s blessing.
Her final wish is to have a weekend get-together with her family. Certainly not your run-of-the-mill trip back to see the folks.￼ The first to arrive is the stuffy, controlling older daughter Jennifer (Kate Winslet), her dutiful husband Michael (Rainn Wilson), and their moody son Jonathan (Anson Boon). Their flighty younger daughter Anna (Mia Wasikowska) arrives later along with her on-again/off-again flame Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus). Joining them all is Lily’s long-time best friend Elizabeth (Lindsay Duncan). Everyone knows what’s about to happen and they all attempt to put on a good face. But as films like this have shown, old baggage always finds its way into the story.
By the way, when it comes to old baggage, everyone brings some. And I do mean everyone. Screenwriter Christian Torpe (who also wrote “Silent Heart”) starts with the illusion that everything’s alright, a little tense but okay. Then the grudges, hard feelings, and pent-up anger begin to fester, threatening to derail Lily’s ￼carefully planned weekend. Once the first shot is fired, a near steady hail of barbs, insults, and cuts follow. And again, no one is excluded. Everyone ends up with some secret to reveal or some family axe to grind. It gets a little ridiculous, almost resembling a dark comedy spoof although one we’ve seen several times before.
Yet there are moments where Michell’s deliberately light touch brings some welcomed levity. Sarandon’s straight-shooting, no-nonsense approach to Lily opens the door for some sharp comical quips amid all the seriousness. And Wilson, though playing a dramatic role, is naturally funny. His character’s wealth of useless knowledge works well as a reoccurring joke. The rest of the cast is (as you would expect) rock-solid and collectively they carry the bulk of the load. You could argue the script depends a little too much on its stars. At the same time they do bring heart to their broad range of roles. And when the family chaos kicks in high gear threatening to sink the story, it’s the well acted characters who keep it afloat. “Blackbird” opens this Friday.
VERDICT – 3.5 STARS