BLACKBIRD

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Roger Michell

Stars: Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Sam Neill, Mia Wasikowska, Lindsay Duncan, Anson Boon, Bex Taylor Klaus.

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This emotionally laden melodrama deals with the controversial issue of euthanasia, but it feels as though it lacks the requisite emotional punch that such material should carry.

Lily (played by Susan Sarandon) is in her late 60s and is suffering from ALS, a terminal illness which is slowly robbing her of her ability to function. Given months to live she is determined to go out on her own terms. Rather than be hooked up to tubes in hospital she plans to die in her own bed. Her husband Paul (Sam Neill) is a doctor and has acquired the appropriate medications to concoct a lethal dose. Because euthanasia is illegal in their state, Paul has also created a plausible story to explain Lily’s death to the authorities when the time comes.

Gathering at the house for an early Christmas are Lily’s family. Eldest daughter Jennifer (Kate Winslet) is an uptight control freak while her nerdish husband Michael (Rainn Wilson, from The Office, etc, largely cast against type) spouts facts and trivia at the drop of a hat and at often inopportune moments. Their fifteen-year-old son Jonathan (Anson Boon, from Crawl, etc) clearly loves his grandmother but is uncomfortable and struggles with the decision. Lily’s youngest daughter, the fragile but rebellious Anna (Mia Wasikowska), has always been something of a troubled child having wrestled with her own mental health problems and has been distant from the family for some time. She is accompanied by her on-again off-again girlfriend Chris (Bex Taylor Klaus, from tv series 13 Reasons Why, etc), and the pair have differing views on Lily’s decision. Anna just wants to spend more time with her mother. The unresolved differences between Jennifer and Anna heightens the tension of this family gathering.

Also present is Elisabeth (Lindsay Duncan, recently seen in Made In Italy, etc), Lily’s oldest friend, a former college roommate with whom she has spent plenty of time travelling and holidaying. Elisabeth is aware of Lily’s decision is there to lend moral support.

But we’ve seen this sort of thing many times before on screen and the cliches are all there – the dysfunctional family gathering in which secrets are revealed, personal issues are addressed and misunderstandings are resolved, all leading to a cathartic moment.

Blackbird is a fairly faithful remake of the little seen 2014 Danish tearjerker Silent Heart, from Danish filmmaker Christian Torpe, who has adapted his own screenplay here. This is a touching study of grief, loss, family. British director Roger Michell (Notting Hill, etc) maintains something of a European sensibility with the material, which is overly manipulative in nature. Despite the film dealing with the sensitive and emotionally laden right to die issue, Michell keeps the mood upbeat for much of the duration.

But the film also has the look and feel of a stage play, as much of the drama is confined to Lily’s impressive beachfront home. The production design from Emmy winner John Paul Kelly (The Theory Of Everything, etc) is superb. The film has been nicely shot by Michell’s regular cinematographer Mike Eley (My Cousin Rachel, etc), and the backdrop of the coastal scenery is gorgeously shot. Peter Gregson’s maudlin score is perfect for the subject matter.

The film boasts some good performances from its stellar cast who bring to life the characters and their particular idiosyncrasies. Sarandon has been on screen for fifty years, and still has a luminous presence that elevates most of her roles, and here she delivers a solid performance that captures Lily’s pain and frustration over her failing body. She has played the dying matriarch before, in Stepmom, and she tinges her performance with strength, intelligence and grace. Neill as usual has a warm and intelligent presence as the supportive Paul, but it is a somewhat underwritten role. It’s nice to see Winslet play a character who is a little unlikeable as the waspish and overbearing Jennifer, and Wasikowska has a couple of emotional moments as her Anna wrestles with her conscience and tries to deal with her emotional baggage. I particularly liked the contributions from the two younger performers who have their own views on the situation.

Although Blackbird is dealing with a contentious issue it does so in a light and non-confrontational fashion that allows audiences to make up their own minds on how they would react in a similar situation.

★★★

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