Family get-togethers, particularly around the holidays, can lead only to an equal amount of nostalgia and squabbling. That’s just the way these things go in Hollywood movies. But we might’ve hoped that Blackbird, a starry remake of Danish film Silent Heart, would have a bit more to say considering its right-to-life premise. Instead, the humanist-but-controversial choice is little more than an occasional talking point in a film that is only passable because of the cast’s efforts to respect the trite material with as much honesty as possible.
Susan Sarandon leads the way as Lily, who has decided to end her life on her own terms before a degenerative diseases takes the choice away. She’s decided Christmas is the perfect time to do it (That’ll make for good holiday conversation for the rest of their lives), and her loyal husband Paul (Sam Neill) is okay with it. The family’s lush, oceanside resort becomes a gathering place for one final get-together, with everybody bringing their various quirks, secrets, and anxieties into the mix. Kate Winslet is the neurotic favorite daughter Jennifer, with Rainn Wilson as her foot stool of a husband and Anson Boone as their son. Into this mix is the combustible daughter played by Mia Wasikowska, who brings along her on-again/off-again partner played by Arrow‘s Bex Taylor-Klaus. Always present but barely accounted for is Lily’s longtime best friend, Elisabeth, played by Lindsay Duncan.
The cast is not the problem, as you can see. Giving them something worthwhile to do, on the other hand, is what writer Christian Torpe and veteran filmmaker Roger Michell struggle with. Each character is thinly-drawn, designed to act out one particular personality and stick with it until a moment of epiphany that changes them all. The first half of the film is a real drag, bogged down by soggy music and lame one-liners that attempt to take the edge off of a touchy subject. But that’s Blackbird‘s problem as a whole; it NEEDS that edge badly. The rough edges that make these family movies feel authentic are sanded down into nothing.
Of course, there are moments that remind you how good this could have been. Sarandon is terrific as Lily, a spitfire who is saddened by the choice she has to make but steadfast in her decision. She cracks wise while the rest of her family try to keep it together, often unsuccessfully. In her final days, Lily is putting her house in order as best she can, dispensing advice and drinking wine. She shares some really good scenes with Boone and Wasikowska, the latter perfectly capturing the daughter’s discontent and fragility.
At about the halfway point I jotted down that “This movie needs an everybody get stoned or high moment BADLY”, and sure enough we get that. And like in most reunion flicks, it’s like someone flipped a light switch and the characters start getting real…real weird, real talky, real emotional. It helps to lighten the mood, for a while, But Blackbird can’t sustain it for long. A complication involving Lily and Paul’s relationship to Elisabeth comes along just in time to be brushed aside for the end credits, although it might’ve added some much-needed complexity. While watchable, Blackbird spends so much time trying not to make any waves that it never gets off the ground.