Blackbird is not the heartwarming tale of a family pushing aside petty grievances to gather together and share the final, quiet moments of a loved one’s life. It’s also not the compelling story of the dignity of choosing when to say goodbye on one’s own terms. It attempts to be both but ultimately fails because the characters at the heart of the film simply aren’t worth an emotional investment.
Oscar winner Susan Sarandon (Dead Man Walking) stars as Lily, a wife, mother, and grandmother who’s entering the last stage of a debilitating disease. Rather than lose her ability to function, she’s come to the decision that quality is better than quantity and that assisted suicide is preferable to becoming incapacitated by this disease.
Lily decided to end her life with the support of her husband, Paul (Sam Neill), who wholeheartedly agrees with her desire to pass away peacefully at home while she’s still capable of making decisions for herself.
Lily’s final weekend arrives and her two daughters return home to say their last goodbyes. Jennifer (Kate Winslet), the “responsible” one, is accompanied by her husband, Michael (Rainn Wilson), and their teenage son, Jonathan (Anson Boon). Anna (Mia Wasikowska) shows up late, which is apparently completely in keeping with her reputation of being the irresponsible daughter, and she’s brought her on-again/off-again girlfriend, Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus), to keep her company. Also in attendance is family friend Liz (Lindsay Duncan) who’s been a permanent fixture in the lives of everyone in the household since the early days of Lily and Paul’s marriage.
All are aware of Lily’s decision and each member of the family deals with it in his or her own way. Unfortunately, some of those invited to share in Lily’s final hours aren’t completely on board with her choice. Events occur during the course of the weekend that cause others to shift their support away from Lily’s plan.
While all of this is taking place, well-kept secrets are revealed and grievances are aired. There’s a sort of Festivus scene at the dinner table that rings truer than most of what goes down over the course of the rest of the film. However, by the time that point’s reached it’s far too late to feel invested in the outcome of this family’s traumatic weekend gathering.
Rather than delivering an emotional gut-punch, Blackbird fails to land much of a response at all. The dysfunctional relationship between the sisters feels hollow, as do Anna and Jennifer’s relationships with their partners. Only Liz actually breathes any life into this gathering of stereotypical characters. Unfortunately, Liz is also used as a foil to force opposing forces to come together in a contrived plot twist that feels dishonest. That particular turn of events is so convenient it’s laughable.
Strangely, it’s the supporting players in Blackbird – Bex Taylor-Klaus’ Chris and Lindsay Duncan’s Liz – who outshine their more well-known co-stars. Taylor-Klaus and Duncan are breaths of fresh air in an otherwise disappointingly dull ensemble.
Director Roger Michell’s Blackbird starts off well enough and it certainly has a cast any director would be envious of signing up. But shortly into its relatively swift running time the flatness of the story and the lack of interesting characters cause a detachment to what should have been an emotionally compelling story. By the time the “will she or won’t she go through with it” moment arrives, it’s difficult to genuinely care one way or another.
Release Date: September 18, 2020
MPAA Rating: R for language, some drug use, and brief sexual material
Running Time: 97 minutes
Studio: Screen Media Films