The films of Roger Michell often concern the tragedy of love, and Blackbird is no exception.
Set in the wealthy suburban landscape of the coastal Hamptons, in upstate New York, the family of Lily (Susan Sarandon), ill and dying from a terminal illness, gather not just to say goodbye but also to play their part in a planned euthanasia Lily wants before the disease ravages her in her final weeks. Her husband Paul (Sam Neill) knows it isn’t quite legal. Yet they all seem to be on the same page, aware that Lily seeks to die on her own terms with a level of dignity, with her faculties, with good final memories of the people she loves. Then, as is always the case in a Michell drama, the wheels come off. Revelations abound. Feelings emerge. And Lily’s intended, graceful departure is compromised.
To Blackbird’s credit, while it languishes in the realm of melodrama, it never accedes to it. Michell’s piece remains free of histrionics, choosing instead to deal in ambiguities and painful characteristics.
Diane Keaton was originally in the frame to play Lily, and in hindsight she would have been near perfect casting, but Sarandon fills her shoes nicely as the woman Blackbird entirely pivots around.
Lily and Paul are middle aged and clearly affluent, living in a beautiful beach side house, and their marriage appears strong, have weathered the trauma of parting. They have made their peace with the future, in very different ways. Blackbird is about what happens when grown-up children enter the equation and challenge the authority figures they grew up following and respecting, with Christian Torpe’s screenplay (based on the Danish film Silent Heart, by director Bille August, from 2014, which he also wrote) focused on how these people interact in the clean, expansive but somewhat soulless abode. It never feels like a home that has been curated for decades, more a way station for Lily’s final journey.
This is surely intentional on the part of Michell, who frames Blackbird with one eye on a clinical Scandinavian distance. His camera often shoots wide, akin to an observer watching the family drama, avoiding much in the way of intimate close-up. This works to keep us connected while also at arms length as these very different people connect and combine as they face up to mortality.
Kate Winslet’s daughter Jennifer is uptight, and while she thinks she’s a proto-Lily, she lacks the counter cultural vibrancy Lily almost certainly had at her age (this is where Sarandon’s casting really pays off). Lily hints at a sexual tryst with her best and oldest friend Liz (Michell regular Lindsay Duncan) back in the mists of time, which likely makes the rebellious Anna (Mia Wasikowska, who regularly steals the picture), bisexual and in a relationship with a woman who she brings home, as the daughter most like her mother, yet who has never retained the same personal connection.
Blackbird does a good job of keeping familial secrets bubbling under while never making them lascivious or sensationalist. Many of these people emerge as different people from multiple chrysalises as Michell explores—as his films often do—the tangible nature of love, and how it can be twisted and morphed out of shape by desire, or lost opportunity, or repressed expression. Just look at films such as The Mother or Enduring Love – they are all driven by obsession in different contexts and Blackbird feels of a piece in some sense.
Lily is obsessed with ending her life in the way she wishes, itself still a controversial idea in many Western cultures, and the drama within Michell’s film stems from how the younger generation struggle to accede to the wishes of the generation before them. Morality creeps in. Secrets threaten to expose the fallacy behind what Lily wants. And ultimately it comes down to what love is, how it’s expressed, and what it means at the point of death.
This might sound pretentious but Blackbird never is. Riven with skilled performers as it is, and thoughtful direction that is never intrusive, it serves as a quiet, sometimes tense, occasionally explosive, drama which is about life, death, and endings. They’re often the trickiest aspect of a story but Blackbird, for the most part, provides satisfying closure while leaving us plenty of open questions.
Blackbird is now available on digital download & DVD from Lionsgate UK.
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