Roger Michell is one of the most reliably graceful directors of English-language screen drama, rising to the occasion of fine but challenging scripts (notably those he’s shot by Hanif Kureishi), that deft touch elevating material that’s more conventional or less than inspired. His good taste certainly makes a class act of “Blackbird,” Christian Torpe’s Americanization of the screenplay Bille August made into 2014’s Danish “Silent Heart.”
In other hands, this story about a bumpy weekend’s family gathering for a terminally ill matriarch’s planned euthanasia might’ve turned into an overly manipulative tearjerker. But thanks to Michell and a fine cast, it works admirably well — at least to a point, at which some viewers may feel Torpe piles on one crisis too many. Nonetheless, this is a quality enterprise with numerous rewards for adult audiences, one whose Christmas angle might prompt a release timed for maximum awards-campaign-season exposure.
Susan Sarandon’s Lily has ALS, which has already cost her the use of one hand and made walking a chore. Doctor husband Paul (Sam Neill) can hardly deny the inevitability with which her condition will degenerate until she’s incapable of moving, or even swallowing, on her own. That is not a juncture Lily means to reach. Though this knowledge is withheld for a bit, we suss soon enough that she’s set a date for her demise — this Sunday — and will take a lethal dosage to die in her sleep after a final 48 hours spent with the fam.
They duly arrive in separate waves: First there’s elder daughter Jennifer (Kate Winslet), a well-intentioned, slightly maddening control freak whose own husband (Rainn Wilson as Michael) is boring as toast, while their teenage son Jonathan (Anson Boon) somewhat understandably bristles at everything his parents say or do. Running late as usual is Anna (Mia Wasikowska), whose life is as perpetually messy as Jennifer’s is compulsively tidy. She’s been incommunicado for a while, and further roils things by unexpectedly bringing the amiable sometime girlfriend (Bex Taylor-Klaus as Chris) everyone thought she’d broken up with. Also present is Liz (Lindsay Duncan), Lily’s longtime bestie, who’s so close to her and Paul she’s gone along on nearly every family vacation — somewhat to the annoyance of the children, or Jen at least.
The two sisters immediately get on each other’s nerves, as Anna can’t stop screwing up and Jennifer can’t stop conspicuously judging her for it. But in general, personal agendas are suspended to honor mom’s wishes — which include ordering that Christmas be celebrated Saturday night, complete with deluxe holiday dinner and decorated tree, though it’s still autumn. It is during that meal, as exchanges of gifts and sentiments set the stage for Lily’s exit on a note of pure contentment, that one family member spoils the scene with a jarring declaration of unhappiness and blame.
This brings the hitherto pleasantly seriocomic progress a satisfying degree of darker conflict, bringing additional issues into the picture without obscuring those already assembled. It is only when Torpe springs a second revelation — suggesting the parents’ marriage itself is somehow suspect — that “Blackbird” goes a bit overboard. Lily doesn’t need the extra late-breaking drama, and frankly this drama doesn’t, either. It seems unnecessary, like an extra hurdle planted at a track-race finish line just to see if another runner or two can be made to stumble.
It didn’t help at the Toronto Film Festival premiere that the climactic, penultimate scene was interrupted by an apparent medical crisis in the audience, which briefly caused house lights to come on and the film paused. But it’s the script which had already broken the momentum more crucially with that gratuitous, semi-red-herring twist. “Blackbird’s” final moments would play more poignantly without it.
That said, the actors do their considerable best. Sarandon makes Lily a spiky free spirit whose caustic, brusque side has perhaps been exacerbated by frustration at the dependency that illness thrusts upon her. Winslet subsumes her usual radiance to emphasize Jennifer’s qualities as a born nag, almost to the point of caricature. Wasikowska likewise uses fairly broad strokes effectively as a sibling whose problems may seem rooted in simple immature petulance, but in fact run much deeper.
Wilson, Taylor-Klaus and Boon are all fine as less complicated (not to mention histrionic) characters. The film’s stealth weapons, however, are stalwarts Neill and Duncan, playing the kinds of figures whose quiet dedication and love makes it possible for a showier personality like Lily to do a lifelong star turn.
British production “Blackbird” was shot in England, where a seaside location near Chichester substitutes semi-credibly for the purported coastal Connecticut setting. More key is the home Lily purportedly designed, a handsome, spacious spread whose clean white modernist lines are echoed by DP Mike Eley’s elegant widescreen images. Cellist Peter Gregson’s original score for chamber string ensemble (plus occasional piano) provides a discreet complement to the emotions on display.