Blackbird review: this euthanasia drama trades hard truths for tasteful bromides

Susan Sarandon stars as a dying woman who gathers her family for one last weekend in Roger Michell’s prettified remake of Bille August’s Silent Heart.

Blackbird (2019)

Bille August’s 2014 Danish family drama Silent Heart gets a polish and a mild, mid-Atlantic makeover courtesy of another old hand, Roger Michell, but Christian Torpe remains the sole credited screenwriter here, and there’s the rub.

A UK production but set somewhere unspecified, bucolic and remote on the Eastern seaboard of the United States, Blackbird features Kate Winslet and Mia Wasikowska as sisters Jennifer and Anna, daughters to Paul (Sam Neill) and Lily (Susan Sarandon), whose terminal degenerative disease, and her determination to call it quits while she is still ahead, is the reason for this gathering. Also in attendance: Lily’s oldest, bestest friend (Lindsay Duncan); Jennifer’s husband (Rainn Wilson) and teenage son (Anson Boon); and Anna’s girlfriend (Bex Taylor-Klaus).

It wouldn’t be a surprise if this started out as a play, given the self-contained setting, weekend timescale and ensemble, though there are no shortage of cinematic forebears one could point to, from Festen to Bergman. Sadly, Blackbird is not in that league, serving up tasteful bromides masquerading as hard truths and never venturing too deep beneath the skin.

Michell follows August’s lead in establishing a respectful, discreet aesthetic that gives ample room to admire the tony, sleekly designed and maintained property, a multimillion dollar country home in any market. Apparently Lily designed it herself, though that’s the only fleeting reference to her professional life. Presumably the staff has been given the weekend off, or else Paul, who is a doctor, spends his spare time cleaning, because every surface looks immaculate.

If you are emulating Ingmar Bergman’s chamber dramas, these are, à la Woody Allen, the wrong kind of interiors on which to concentrate. But there’s precious little friction here, beyond the tired, trite sibling rivalry between mature, responsible Jennifer and flakey, fragile Anna. Winslet gives a fussy, busy performance as the former, her eyes hidden behind dark spectacle frames, and fails to suggest anything very arresting about this priggish housewife. Wasikowska at least gets to let off the screenplay’s one unexpected depth charge, on the 60-minute mark – and even then her revelation, and what it might mean about this family, seems of less import than her bad manners in interrupting Lily’s carefully stage-managed last bow, Chablis, charades and all.

As for Susan Sarandon, while she remains a sensitive and empathetic centre point, the movie’s evasive, prettified take on terminal illness is another mark against it. No wonder Anna feels it’s too soon to administer the deadly dose: Lily’s practically glowing.

“Is this when you impart your wisdom?” her grandson asks at one point as they decorate the Christmas tree together (one of the dying woman’s whims: it’s barely autumn). She demurs, explaining that we’re all muddling through, words to that effect. Then adds: “But handwritten thank-you notes and being on time don’t hurt.”

It’s not much of a takeaway, but it’s better than nothing I suppose.

Incidentally, there’s no explanation given for the English-language title, and we don’t hear the Paul McCartney song of that name either.

In the film’s very first scene, Lily slowly, painfully, adamantly arises, gets herself dressed, makes her way downstairs to the kitchen, where she impatiently flicks off the string quartet Paul has thoughtfully playing on the Bose, and switches it to a random pop song. More of that subversion could have gone a long way. Instead we are in for strings from here on out.

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