Blackbird

M, 98 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

A caring family, lifelong friendship, a loving husband, with a home in The Hamptons thrown in for good measure. What could be wrong? Well, everything for a woman who is facing a debilitating disease that will slowly end her life. She has decided that before she becomes incapacitated, she will die at a time of her own choosing.

The background to this film is, of course, euthanasia. However, the point that director Roger Michell makes is that the arguments about the rights and wrongs of euthanasia have already taken place, before the camera has rolled. That’s right. It is the backdrop to this family relationship drama.

Blackbird is based on a Danish film from 2014 directed by Bille August and written by Christian Torpe. This is an English-language remake of Silent Heart, with Torpe again the screenwriter.

Susan Sarandon occupies the lead role, as the terminally ill Lily.

a carefully managed exit may be sabotaged

It is about the moment when the people closest to her gather to say farewell. There is lots to say, and to sort, as it happens. More than Lily bargained for. And proceedings are nearly run off the rails by her unhappy adult daughters, Anna (Mia Wasikowska) and older sibling, Jennifer (Kate Winslet), and a calamitous secret. When the daughters arrive with partners and offspring, it’s clear Lily’s carefully stage-planned final exit may be sabotaged.

The action begins quietly in the veggie patch where Sam Neill, as Lily’s loving husband, Paul, a doctor, is sampling the cherry tomatoes. Throughout the proceedings, he will demonstrate that he is a great chef who can muster up a family banquet on command and select the best wines to complement it. He’s a man who understands the important things in life.

Anna and Jennifer, an almost unrecognisable Winslet in dark-rimmed glasses, have everybody on tenterhooks, except maybe Lily, which is rather revealing. It’s particularly good to see Wasikowska again after a long absence from the big screen.

Anna, has spent time in psychiatric ward after a suicide attempt. Jennifer seems to be quite the opposite, possibly the other side of the coin. She is uptight, frustrated by her marriage to Michael (Rain Wilson), a font of information but short on feeling, and she is hard on her son. Seeking safety in numbers, Jonathan (Anson Boon) divulges his ambitions at the dinner table. He hopes to become an actor.

Lily’s oldest best friend, Liz (Lindsay Duncan, whom Michell also directed in Le Week-End), shows up too. She is, like Neill, under-used, though less able to make her presence felt.

The ensemble cast are all really good, however, even the small parts are significant.

Diane Keaton was originally cast in the role that eventually went to Sarandon. It would have been a very different film without Sarandon, with a more accessible, more self-effacing actor persona in her place. The screenplay called for the steeliness that Sarandon brings but that imperiousness doesn’t always invite empathy.

There’s no wavering from a woman like Lily, so in charge of her destiny. As her hubbie observes in a family conversation in the kitchen, the kind of people who decide euthanasia is the course for them, tend to be ‘deeply, deeply controlling’. No, not insane and not depressed, but intelligent, analytical, and articulate.

The backstory isn’t cheerful, but there is plenty of wit flying around here. And it is sensitively, adeptly handled by director Michell. He is good at calibrating the emotional balance. From straightforward, crowd pleasing romance like Notting Hill, to tricky marital entanglements like Le Week-End. And he managed to make a film of Ian McEwan’s awkward novel Enduring Love.

The score by Peter Gregson, with lots of solo violin and piano, is very lovely. I guess you could call it ‘tasteful’ too.

It’s funny how small family melodramas seem at this point. It is the Covid moment? Maybe, but Palm Beach (2019), with infidelities and alienations revealed among affluent, privileged families and friends had a similar problem in 2019.

Still, this is a story of a family and as such about primary relationships, rather than the rights or wrongs of someone taking their own life. Euthanasia should not, anyway, be an issue for privileged people alone.

If you think about the Beatles’ song Blackbird, the second line may hold the key to what it’s really all about. Release.

First published in the Canberra Times on 27 February 2021