Directed by Roger Michell
Starring Susan Sarandon, Sam Neill, Kate Winslett, Rainn Wilson, Mia Wasikowska, Lindsay Duncan, Bex Taylor-Klaus, and Anson Boon.
When a terminally ill mother (Susan Sarandon) brings her nearest-and-dearest together for one last time before she dies, it stirs up deep seated emotions within the fractured family.
From the off, it’s very clear that Roger Michell’s remake of the 2014 Danish film Silent Heart is going to be a tough watch. The subject matter dictates it, and Susan Sarandon’s giant performance earns it.
Now that’s not ‘giant’ in a showy, Oscar-baiting fashion, that can so often overpower manipulative disease-of-the-week movies. No, here she is warm, sympathetic, and heartbreakingly human in the face of her own mortality.
Introduced with a stretched arm unfolding into frame, like a blossoming delicate flower, she uncurls, but not completely due to the cruel limitations of her illness. Physical restrictions that are exacerbated by depicting the struggle of simple everyday tasks: putting on slippers, reaching into her dressing gown, and walking down the stairs. You’re left in little doubt about how she suffers, which is important in validating the decision at the heart of the story. Throughout this though, Sarandon remains a strong, positive representation of the choice she has made.
The right-to-die isn’t presented as a black-and white argument by Blackbird. Instead there are a roll-call of characters at different stages of acceptance of the decision, who’re wheeled in to provide the film’s discourse. At one end of the spectrum you have Kate Winslet’s uptight daughter, the actress unrecognisable presenting an exterior of creaking stoicism in the face of grief. At the other is Sam Neill, delightful as the loving husband, seemingly as at peace with the decision as the woman he loves.
In-between you get the refreshing naivety of youth in the form of Anson Boon’s likeable Jonathan, Rainn Wilson’s laughter is the best medicine bore, and Mia Wasikowska as misplaced selfishness. They’re a bit like the personalities from Inside Out, only not as well drawn.
Such a diverse range of characters is one of Blackbird‘s strengths. At times they might feel like plot devices, but their interaction perfectly captures the awkward pageantry of a family reunion. The way conversations overlap one-another or get lost in the crowd, is one of the many relatable aspects of the film, which heightens the emotional connection to what they’re going through.
However, this kind of chaos can also bring with it an inconsistency in tone: there are times when the film underplays everything to the point of sterility, but then it tips over into the cringe-inducing mawkishness of an on-the-nose dinner-table rap scene, or a spontaneous sex-scene which is executed in a farcical fashion which feels out of sync with the rest of the film. There’s always a danger with this type of tale not to get suffocated by melodrama, but you don’t want to veer too much in the other direction either.
Blackbird remains an undeniable sledgehammer to the emotions, one that walks a very fine line between heartache and Hallmark, but Susan Sarandon is gently astonishing, and by the time the sun sets on the film you’ll be watching it though a veil of tears.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film ★ ★ ★ / Movie ★ ★ ★
Matt Rodgers – Follow me on Twitter @mainstreammatt