In Blackbird, Susan Sarandon stars as Lily, a bougie-boho-boomer architect facing the beginning of the end of a death from ALS, who gathers her loved ones around her for one last weekend at the family’s ostentatiously discreet seaside villa before she commits suicide. Adapted by screenwriter Christian Torpe from his own text for the Danish movie Silent Heart, this English-language version assembles around Sarandon a tony cast that includes Sam Neill as her doctor spouse, Kate Winslet and Mia Wasikowska as her daughters, Rainn Wilson and Bex Taylor-Klaus as the latter’s respective partners, newcomer Anson Boon as a grandson, and Lindsay Duncan as the matriarch’s lifelong best friend.
With its honey-toned natural lighting, quippy, overlapping dialogue and use of immensely tasteful, mostly copyright-free music throughout, this high-falutin’ melodrama feels designed to supply clips for awards ceremonies anyway you slice it. There almost isn’t a single shot in it where every member of the cast isn’t Acting. That’s especially true if their character doesn’t happen to be speaking at that moment and he or she is meant to be just reacting on the sidelines, labile features at the ready to register tiny ripples of suppressed feeling.
The result is, at times, insufferably pleased with itself, especially as the film seems to be working on the assumption that the audience will at all times be awestruck by the cast, dazzled by how daring some of them are for playing a little bit against type (Winslet, for instance, dowdies up a bit while Wilson assays straight drama for a change).
It doesn’t help that this particular combination of constituent plot mechanics — character plans suicide, fractious family gathers to say goodbye, revelations ensue — feels somehow both a bit hackneyed and far-fetched. That’s especially true when a brace of last-act revelations — the second one is a real doozy — threaten to upset Lily’s meticulously curated and choreographed last day.
Meanwhile, amid all these endless shades of taupe swaddling the cast, the question arises as to whether this is meant to be an aspirational lifestyle spread or a serious examination of family and friend dynamics. Certainly, there’s very little acid in the mix, a disappointment given that in the past, director Roger Michell has been expert at skewering the pretensions, hypocrisies or at least self-satisfied smugness of this kind of upper-middle-class milieu, for example in The Mother or Enduring Love.
Nevertheless, Michell has always been deft at orchestrating large ensemble dinner-party scenes. In some ways, this film is basically one long dinner party as the story unfolds over a weekend at an airy, vernacular-meets-high-modernist Elle Deco centerfold of a house on a beach that’s supposed to be in Connecticut but is actually located in Chichester, England. (The salty marshland landscape with its moon-like surface at low tide will induce swoons of recognition in sentimental East Anglians.)
The party assembles in carloads at a time. Winslet’s prissy Jennifer, Lily’s elder daughter, has inherited her mother’s “controlling” manner but without the earth-mother warmth. Married — inexplicably, to the rest of the family — to trivia-dispensing dotard Michael (Wilson, doing a fine job as the kind of eager-to-please outsider he’s played in the past), Jennifer kvells over the achievements of her shy, shoe-gazing teenage son Jonathan.
In a smartly observed touch, the kid actually gets on best with fellow outsider Chris (gender non-binary actor Taylor-Klaus), the on-again/off-again lover of younger sister Anna (Wasikowska) who seems to be in a permanent tiff with her family and the world at large. The script sort of invites the audience to play armchair psychologist and diagnose what Anna’s problem is. Spoiled narcissist? Feckless millennial? Turns out it’s something more clinically recognized, but that doesn’t entirely let her off the hook for being a pain in everyone’s neck, especially when she threatens to sabotage Lily’s suicide plans because she, Anna, isn’t ready yet to lose her mom.
Lily’s husband Paul (Neill, rocking a chunky cardigan) and best friend Liz (Duncan) are coping with surprising, perhaps even disturbing, equanimity given their impending loss. With these less showy but still crucial roles, the two older performers do sterling backup-singer work keeping things in tune. And Torpe’s script plants a tangy note that illustrates how much more at ease the older generation is with sexual experiment when it’s casually mentioned during a walk with Liz and Lily that they tried out being lovers once but Lily wasn’t sure if she got the technique right. The scene makes the daughters’ panicked suspicions later on in the story that Liz and Paul might be secret lovers seem all the more naïve and simplistic.
Indeed, there are many interesting grace notes here throughout, finely enhanced by Mike Eley’s limpid cinematography and a soundtrack of not-so-obvious, oddly modern-sounding pieces by Bach and Mozart that add to the high-toned churchiness of the vibe.
But ultimately, the very perfection and elegance of the one-percenter lifestyle on display (sorry, Susan Sarandon: These people definitely voted for Hillary, not Bernie) risks becoming the film’s biggest flaw. Does anyone outside of mid-period non-comic Woody Allen films live like this? When Lily asks the group to just go about their business as they would on any other Sunday morning — reading the papers, playing the stock market, or (I kid you not) “writing a play” — it might suddenly strike some viewers how bizarre it is that none of these characters has wasted a second studying their Instagram feed or even checking their emails like people do all the time, however caught up they are in a family weekend and however rich they are in cultural capital.
Maybe if was felt that the blue LED light from cellphone screens would risk ruining the carefully chosen palette of warm earth tones throughout.
Production companies: Millennium Films, Eclectic Pictures, Busted Shark Productions
Cast: Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Mia Wasikowska, Sam Neill, Lindsay Duncan, Rainn Wilson, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Anson Boon
Director: Roger Michell
Screenwriter: Christian Torpe, based on his screenplay for Silent Heart
Producers: Sherryl Clark, David Bernardi, Rob Van Norden
Executive producers:Avi Lerner, Trevor Short, Andrey Georgiev, Jeffrey Greenstein, Jonathan Yunger, Heidi Jo Markel, Andrew Kotliar, Elizabeth Zavoyskiy, Joshua Sason, Mike Donovan
Director of photography: Mike Eley
Production designer: John Paul Kelly
Costume designer: Dinah Collin
Editor: Kristina Hetherington
Music supervisor: Selena Arizanovic
Casting: Sarah Wilson
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala)