Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. Screen Media releases the film in select theaters and on VOD on Friday, September 18.
The decision has already been made by the time Roger Michell’s “Blackbird” begins. Months of debates and discussion are long over, and now it’s time for the hard-headed Lily (Susan Sarandon) to die. It’s hard to imagine anything screaming “tough watch!” as much as “remake of a Danish euthanasia drama” — but Michell, screenwriter Christian Torpe (adapting his own original screenplay), and a talented cast strike a delicate balance in a domestic drama that ably combines heartbreak and humor. Twists abound, but emotions and events are never allowed to careen out of control, and Michell’s nimble direction keeps the ship right even through the stormiest of sequences.
As it turns out, the word “euthanasia” is never spoken in “Blackbird,” but from the film’s opening moments, it’s obvious that a) Lily is very sick and b) she’s pissed about it. As she struggles to get herself out of bed and into a robe and slippers — Sarandon never goes too far, and her character’s inability to use one arm with her legs nearly as bad is never overplayed — her anger over her lack of self-sufficiency is readily apparent. Later in the film, her husband Paul (Sam Neill) comments that many people who decide on euthanasia are basically control freaks. That’s Lily in a nutshell.
Lily and Paul are preparing for the end of her life on her terms, including one last weekend with their daughters Jennifer and Anna (Kate Winslet and Mia Wasikowska, both solid, if never quite believable as peers), their loved ones, and Lily’s longtime best friend Liz (Lindsay Duncan, all simmering emotion). But while Lily has come to this decision of her own accord — though the script frequently references earlier conversations between the group that led to this moment — that doesn’t mean that everyone, especially her children, are truly accepting of it.
Set mostly in Lily and Paul’s stunning house over the course of Lily’s last two days, “Blackbird” inevitably feels a bit stagey, with characters walking in and out of rooms, theatrical blocking dominating most scenes (particularly the ones involving the entire motley crew), and a few exaggerated facial expressions. But Michell course-corrects when he can, utilizing the house’s many windows to peek in for serendipitous looks at scenes both banal and profound. Ultimately, Michell and cinematographer Mike Eley unearth an apparent secret that sets in motion the creaky third act.
It’s not as if everyone has been sitting easy with Lily’s choice until that secret (and plenty of others) are divulged, and Michell spends the second act of the film teetering between genuinely funny family trivialities (mostly lots of bickering) and searing emotional showdowns. There’s little worry that Lily will not get to do what she’s set her mind to, but the road there isn’t nearly as smooth as she had been hoping for. For every moment of graceful understanding or a hearty chuckle, there’s a gut punch to follow.
Each of Michell’s different characters is given a chance to shine, with Winslet’s brittle Jennifer earning the best arc and Wasikowska deftly turning Anna’s more over-the-top journey into something small and bright. As Jennifer’s doofy husband, Rainn Wilson goes from background humor (he loves a fun fact) to a man with something to say, and the pair’s sweet son Jonathan (a standout Anson Boon) emerges as the soul of the film. Even Anna’s flighty on-and-off partner Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus), introduced as an interloper, finds a way to establish their value in the family.
With an inevitable ending looming, emotions boil over and revelations are deployed for maximum impact. While Jennifer and Anna’s defined places in the family have informed much of “Blackbird” — Jennifer the super-ego, Anna the id, and nothing in between — those distinctions begin to crumble. How could they not? Even though the film’s third act tips into the melodrama, it’s so well avoided for its first hour, that its eventual arrival is welcome: This is, after all, a story about endings, and those can’t help but generate deep sadness.
Yet Michell and his warmly-drawn characters make the subtle case that perhaps that’s not always the way it has to be. Maybe an ending can be just that, the conclusion of one thing and the start of something new, or at least one that’s hopeful. “Blackbird” may be a tearjerker, but it’s also a reminder that there’s more to tears than tragedy, even in the midst of personal loss.
“Blackbird” premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival in the Gala Presentations section.
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