September 17, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Roger Michell
Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional city of Pontsmill, Connecticut, the dramatic film “Blackbird” features an all-white cast of characters representing the upper-middle class.
Culture Clash: Long-simmering resentments cause conflicts during a family gathering for a terminally ill woman who wants to die by euthanasia.
Culture Audience: “Blackbird” will appeal primarily to people who like well-acted dramas about family issues.
Should people with a terminal disease decide when and how they want to die? It’s an ethical dilemma that has already been decided by Lily Walker, the matriarch of a well-to-do American family. Lily has multiple sclerosis and she wants her doctor husband Paul to give her a lethal dose of medication before her health further declines. The dramatic film “Blackbird” (directed by Roger Michell) is about the family gathering at Lily and Paul’s beach house in the final days that Lily has decided that she’s going to live.
“Blackbird” is a remake of the 2014 Danish film “Silent Heart,” which was written by Christian Torpe, who adapted the movie from his “Silent Heart” novel. Torpe also wrote the screenplay for “Blackbird,” which is a random title for the movie since there’s no blackbird or reference to a blackbird in the story. What’s more important is that it’s a solidly written, well-acted story that isn’t really Oscar-worthy, but it will tug at people’s heartstrings and trigger emotions because there are moments that might remind viewers of their own families.
In “Blackbird” (which takes place in the fictional city of Pontsmill, Connecticut), Lily (played by Susan Sarandon) has already come to terms with how she wants to die. Her attitude, while not exactly jubilant, is rather matter-of-fact and often jokingly sarcastic about her impending death. Lily’s husband Paul (played by Sam Neill) is trying to go about life as “normally” as possible while trying not to let it show too much how much of a heavy emotional burden he has to administer the lethal dose of medication that has been ordered specifically for the euthanasia.
Lily wants to die on her own terms because she’s losing the use of her muscles, while her medical diagnosis is that it will only be a matter of months when she will have to use a feeding tube to eat. The beginning of the movie shows members of Lily and Paul’s immediately family, as well as Lily’s longtime British best friend Liz (played by Lindsay Duncan), gathering at Lily and Paul’s home to say their goodbyes.
The family members who have gathered for this bittersweet reunion include Lily and Paul’s two daughters who are total opposites. Elder daughter Jennifer, or Jen (played by Kate Winslet), is a judgmental control freak who likes her life to be well-planned and orderly—and it bothers her if other people’s lives aren’t in order too. Younger daughter Anna (played by Mia Wasikowska) has a very messy life, including jumping around from job to job and being treated for bipolar disorder. It should come as no surprise that Jen and Anna don’t get along very well and have been estranged for years.
Trying not to get in the middle of this sibling feud are their respective love partners: Jen’s mild-mannered and nerdy husband Michael (played Rainn Wilson) and Anna’s on-again/off-again partner Chris (played by Bex Taylor-Klaus), who appears to be nonbinary. (Taylor-Klaus is nonbinary in real life.) Also at this family reunion is Jen and Michael’s teenage son Jonathan (played by Anson Boon), who’s going through that teenage phase where he’s easily embarrassed and irritated by things his parents say and do. Jonathan (who is about 16 or 17 years old) is a well-behaved, academically talented student, but he wants to be an actor, which is a career choice that he knows his parents won’t like.
The movie does not show how Lily and Paul told their loved ones the news about Lily’s planned euthanasia, but by the time the group has gathered at the house, they all know about it, except for Jonathan. Paul eventually takes Jonathan aside for a private talk to break the news to him. Jonathan is shocked, but he’s willing to accept whatever Lily wants because he loves and respects his grandmother. In fact, Lily is the first person in the family whom Jonathan tells that he wants to be an actor. She encourages him to pursue this goal.
But since this is a drama about a family reunion, it isn’t long before the family friction starts. Jen and Anna haven’t seen each other in some years. While they’re alone together, Jen expresses disappointment that Anna wasn’t at their father’s birthday and at Jonathan’s school recital, even though Jen sent several reminders. Anna said she was too busy and really wanted to be there. However, it’s pretty obvious to observant viewers from Anna’s tone of voice and body language that Anna has been avoiding family gatherings because she doesn’t want to be around Jen.
Jen isn’t shy about expressing her disapproval of Anna being unable to settle on a professional career. (It’s not really stated what Jen does with her life, which makes her morally superior attitude even more insufferable.) When she asks Anna how her dance program is going, Anna tells Jen that she’s dropped out of the program. Jen then scolds Anna for not completing the program, as well as Anna giving up on past attempts to train for jobs in yoga therapy, acupuncture and quilting. These were programs that their parents paid for, so Jen tries to make Anna feel guilty by implying that her parents are wasting their money on Anna.
Jen then proceeds to annoy Anna even more when she admonishes Anna for bringing Chris to this intimate and sensitive family reunion, because Jen had asked Anna not to invite Chris. Anna tells Jen that if Jen can bring her husband Michael to this reunion, then Anna can bring Chris. Anna angrily says to Jen, “Chris happens to my husband.” Jen replies, “Are you sure you’re even gay?”
Jen’s apparent homophobia isn’t the only reason why she doesn’t approve of Anna and Chris’ relationship. Anna and Chris (who are dating but don’t live together) have had a rocky romance, and Jen thinks Chris is a lower-class person who isn’t a good fit for their family. Unfortunately, as Jen is telling Anna about how Chris isn’t worthy of being part of their family, Chris walks into the room and overhears this part of the conversation, and then walks out of the room embarrassed.
And as if Jen couldn’t be more condescending and insulting, she tells Anna: “Can you give Mom this whole weekend and not have it revolve around you, Anna?” At this point, Anna has had enough of Jen’s lectures and explodes: “Can you quit being a fucking bitch?”
Of course, there are more arguments that take place, as is typical for movies about family reunions. Most of the conflicts revolve around Anna and Jen. Anna confides in Chris that she secretly plans to prevent Lily’s euthanasia by calling 911 to report a suicide attempt. Why? Because Anna doesn’t want Lily to die and she wants to spend more time with her mother to make up for time that they spent apart.
And since this is a movie about family reunions, it has the usual trope about secrets being revealed. One thing that’s not a secret is that Liz used to date Paul, before Paul ever met Lily. What is a secret, which Liz and Lily (who used to be free-spirited hippies) discuss while they walk on the beach together, is that back in the early ’70s, they made a drunken attempt to become lesbian lovers, but it didn’t work out. They have a laugh about it all these years later.
The family has gathered in November, close to Thanksgiving, but one of Lily’s last wishes is that they have their Christmas celebration early. She asks Paul to make the Christmas dinner and Michael to go outside and cut down a small tree that will be used for Christmas decorations. This family dinner, where Lily gives everyone a personal gift from her, is one of the best scenes in the movie. Sensitive viewers should have tissues on hand for this tearjerking moment.
With this high caliber of talent in the cast, it’s no surprise that the acting in the movie is top-notch. It’s a story that could easily be adapted into a play, since most of the action takes place inside the house. The beach setting (the movie was actually filmed in Chichester, England, not Connecticut) is lovely, but it’s not very essential to the story.
As good as the acting is in the movie, “Blackbird” doesn’t quite have what it takes to be a movie worthy of a lot of prestigious awards. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the movie, but so much of the “family reunion when someone is dying” aspect has been done before in a familiar manner in other movies, that there’s nothing extraordinary about the way that “Blackbird” tells this type of story. It’s not exactly like a formulaic “disease of the week TV movie,” but the character development is lacking in some ways.
The men in the movie are written as incomplete sketches who mostly react to what the strong-willed women in the family (Lily and Jen) want. Paul essentially admits that he’s just carrying out Lily’s demands, when he tells Liz in a private conversation that people who decide to die by euthanasia are rarely insane or depressed, but they are “deeply controlling.” Jonathan isn’t quite a man yet, but his personality is also fairly generic. He shows typical signs of teen rebellion to both of his parents, but he’s willing to please his beloved grandmother Lily.
The conflicts between Jen and Anna suck up a lot of the emotions in the story, which leaves little room for viewers to really get to know Paul and Michael and what they are feeling. Anna and Jen’s love/hate relationship with each other often leaves Chris feeling like a helpless outsider, since Chris has been dating Anna off and on for about three years, and the issues between Anna and Jen have been going on much longer than that. Lily’s unconditional acceptance of Chris goes a long way in how Jen eventually warms up to Chris. There’s a very good scene that Chris and Jen have together where they confront the awkward family tension that has existed between them.
“Blackbird” isn’t a perfect film, but it realistically raises issues that will make people think about what they would do if someone in their family chose euthanasia as a way to die. How much time would be enough time to prepare the family? What grudges can or can’t be resolved before the loved one dies? And what if someone in the family objects to the euthanasia and wants to stop it, even if it means getting family members into legal trouble? There are no easy answers to these questions, but “Blackbird” is a compelling look at how a fictional family deals with these very real and emotionally complicated dilemmas.
Screen Media Films, in association with Fathom Events, released “Blackbird” in select U.S. cinemas for two nights of previews on September 14 and September 15, 2020. The movie expands to more U.S. cinemas and is available on VOD on September 18, 2020.