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
Sam Neil and Susan S sounds a great pairing, but I am not keen on terminal illness family bunfight type of movies.
This movie has both of those things. But the performances definitely raise it above some other films of this type. Still I understand if these kinds of movies are hard watches.
This is a film I have never heard of but I might check it out if it’s on TV.
Good. You should. It’s a fun watch especially for those of us who love watching great performers perform.
What is it about the American compulsion to re-do already excellent foreign films? To me it is a symptom of a culture that has run out of ideas. Sorry to go glum, but just venting a little. The cast looks great except for Mia, who, even though I’ve seem her in a few good roles, has been in way more stinkers. The plot sounds a lot like August: Osage County with Meryl Streep. I will watch it but no guarantees I’ll like it…
It’s not quite as acidic as “August” (a movie I’m not too high on). I think Blackbird is a better film. Flawed but strong performances see it through.
Having lived through losing my husband to the horrible journey of ALS, I can relate to this movie .
A terminal illness is unimaginable but it is a reality and family’s are not always perfect as this movie brings to light. Through the journey a family will go through so many emotions but love will prevail .
I sat in the theatre wondering if I should leave once I saw the symptoms Lily was displaying i knew it must be about ALS. I didn’t leave and I’m glad I chose to stay .
I think any awareness brought about of the emotional toll ALS or any terminal illness brings on the patient, caregiver and family is worth watching .
Great job by the entire cast .
Thanks for the comments. The cast really puts all of themselves into these roles.that was vital to the story. I’m sure it spoke to you in a powerful way. My and my wife’s family haven’t had a loved one with ALS but we have close family members with terminal cancer, Alzheimer’s, and cerebral palsy. As you said, so many emotions come and go. When these types of movies are done well they can be an emotional release for some.