Set around a vast estate on the northeast American coast, in Roger Michell’s Blackbird, a family comes together over one last weekend to say their goodbyes to matriarch Lily (Susan Sarandon).
Lily has a terminal illness which causes such physical deterioration that her body will eventually shut down entirely, leaving her unable to even feed herself. Choosing to avoid this fate – with the assistance of doting doctor husband Paul (Sam Neill) – provides Lily with the only control over her future that she has: when to end her own life; she wants her family around her before she takes the final, lethal, drug cocktail.
Older daughter Jennifer (Kate Winslet), has an uptight, controlling manner which only mildly masks her repressed rage about everything, including ire directed at her nerdy husband Michael (Rainn Wilson) and dreamer teenage son Jonathan (Anson Boon). Wayward younger daughter Anna (Mia Wasikowska) seems discontent with her partner Chris (Bex Taylor-Kraus) and is angry at the world. And Lily’s long-term friend Liz (Lindsay Duncan), who’s there for moral support as well as reminiscing of the more Woodstock-type years, is perhaps closer to Lily and Paul than them all.
With the narrative taking place entirely within the confines of the house and its grounds, it unsurprisingly feels a little claustrophobic for everyone present, having all their baggage and issues on full display for all to see and hear. Family squabbles and uncomfortable silences play out against the ticking clock countdown of Lily taking her own life at the end of the weekend, juxtaposed against the backdrop of the house’s architectural beauty and calm of the ocean.
The tense atmosphere feels heightened by this contrast but is broken regularly by Lily’s sardonic approach to death, and her refusal to dwell on the sad reality of the situation. But the denial of what lies ahead means swallowing more than just Lily’s imminent death, and amongst the awkward small talk, and her daughters’ frustrations with the decisions she’s made, secrets get uncovered which impact them all.
A remake of the 2014 Danish drama Silent Heart, with the sharp screenplay again by writer Christian Torpe, Michell coaxes out strong performances by all the cast, offering light moments and charm amongst what could otherwise be pure melodrama and constant tears. Neill’s quiet solitary grief as Paul is compelling and provides a balance to Sarandon’s outward confidence and focussed control as Lily. Meanwhile, Winslet as uptight daughter Jennifer, and her discovery of secrets provides a much-needed emotional catalyst for the truth to finally come out.
Whilst Michell’s Blackbird is a story about death, it’s also about family love and understanding, and the ability to forgive even when faced with great pain. A moving drama showcasing a fantastic ensemble cast, this leaves a sweet taste lingering afterwards, alongside the sorrow.
The 63rd BFI London Film Festival runs from 2-13 October 2019. whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff
Zoe Margolis | @girlonetrack