Just looking at the cast of Blackbird, you might think you have something promising on your hands. I mean, there’s Kate Winslet, Susan Sarandon, Sam Neill, Rainn Wilson, Mia Wasikowska – just to name a few. Blackbird is also directed by Roger Michell, who has films like Notting Hill, My Cousin Rachel and 1995’s Persuasion under his directing belt, so believe you me, I began with the highest of hopes, only to crash face first into a pit of disappointment.
The premise of the film revolves around Sarandon’s character Lily gathering the family over for one last hurrah, before she ends her own life. Lily suffers from a terminal, degenerative illness, and so she wishes to go out on her own terms, while she still has control over her own body. In a way, this reminded me of Sarandon’s previous film Stepmom, where she is diagnosed with cancer, and though she rallies against it, she is forced to come to terms with the reality of the illness. She was going to lose her life to it, and as a consequence, would never get to see her children grow up.
I won’t go out on a limb and claim it’s a better movie, because it certainly wasn’t critically acclaimed. But there is lament, and a profound sense of tragedy. The tragedy is absent here. I am supposed to feel something about this character’s decision to terminate her life, but instead, the script does her a disservice by not fleshing her out beyond her obvious control issues.
Winslet plays the prudish Jennifer, who has always done everything by the book. Her husband Michael is equally conservative, so fearful of conflict and is ever so eager to please his wife. Newcomer Anson Boon plays their son Jonathan, who has a strained relationship with his father but we never really learn why. If Winslet is the goody sister, then Wasikowska, who plays her sister Anna, needs to be the rebellious one. There is tension between the two, since Jennifer wants everything to go as smoothly as possible, but Anna wants to change her mother’s mind. She rages and she cries, with her partner Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus) having to bear the brunt of her secrets and anguish.
There are well-directed moments in the film, like the dinner party, where the scene begins with the camera outside the glass walls, letting us observe the family from the outside as they gather to eat, with the warm lighting creating this cosy atmosphere, before we move within to listen to their conversation. Otherwise, the interiors just feel so sterile and cold, as if they had sprung from the pages of a glossy magazine, a reflection of the emotional distance between the family members despite the film’s attempt to bridge the gap. It is simply a space that doesn’t feel lived in.
Neill, as Lily’s husband Paul, isn’t given much to do, and doesn’t exude much despair, just a grim sense of acceptance. Lindsay Duncan, who plays best friend Liz, is perhaps one of the more interesting characters. Liz’s whole life is subsumed under her best friend’s, which is why she is there when it is a supposed family gathering. Both she and Paul play the role of Lily’s caretaker in different ways, and with their lives revolving so tightly around her, they are the ones who will be the most impacted by her death.
Thus, though the cast all deliver on what they are given, the script didn’t bother to build them up beyond their shallow characterisations. This leaves us with a beautiful film that’s rather cold in the centre, and while death is a cold, unflinching thing, people are not supposed to be. I can only feel death’s impact if its contrast is laid into the film, only then will the loss emanate to the viewer. Alas, I leave the film untouched by its events, and if apathetic acceptance is what it was going for, well then, it succeeded.
Review screener provided.
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Despite well-directed moments and a strong cast, a shallow script leaves Blackbird as cold and sterile as the interiors of its beach house setting.
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