Synopsis: A terminally ill mother invites her family to their country house for one final gathering, but tensions quickly boil over between her two daughters.
Stars: Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Mia Wasikowska, Sam Neill, Rainn Wilson, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Anson Boon, Lindsay Duncan
Director: Roger Michell
Running Length: 97 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Back in 1995, I remember reading an article where Susan Sarandon was promoting the movie Safe Passage and casually lamenting the fact that she’d been moved into the “mother” category of the casting sheet. Let’s not forget that by then she was a four-time Oscar nominee and had yet to star in Dead Man Walking, the 1996 film that would finally nab her that long-overdue trophy for Best Actress…but she wasn’t that off the mark. Though she’d played mothers onscreen before, Safe Passage represented the first of a number of films over the next two decades where she played a particular kind of movie-mom: the self-sacrificing matriarch that would do pretty much anything for her children. It’s a role that, even though she may have rallied against it internally, she managed to portray with nuance and keep these women interesting and varied in some way from project to project.
Don’t feel bad if you’re unable to place Safe Passage. Apart from Sarandon, despite boasting a notable cast it’s a pretty dreadful drama otherwise. Sold as a possible awards contender, it barely received a release and whatever buzz had preceded it blew away quickly. The same sort of situation has happened with Sarandon’s latest film Blackbird, a remake of the 2014 Danish film Silent Heart that’s been quite faithfully recreated by its original screenwriter Christian Torpe and directed by Roger Michell (Hyde Park on Hudson). Here’s another film that curates a wonderful ensemble cast but actually knows how to use them in a meaningful way, wringing melodrama from such bountiful sources such as suicide (both assisted and self-inflicted), adultery, mental health, substance abuse, and that familiar font of pain…mother-daughter relationships.
Paul (Sam Neill, Peter Rabbit) and Lily (Sarandon, Jeff, Who Lives at Home) have invited their daughters and their respective families to their beach house for the weekend, after which the terminally ill Lily intends to end her life. Lily is nearing the final stages of ALS and while she is still able to walk and present herself as functioning to a degree, it’s becoming evident that her decline is swiftly approaching. Eldest daughter Jennifer (Kate Winslet, Wonder Wheel) arrives first, accompanied by her husband Michael (Rainn Wilson, The Meg) and teenage son Jonathan (Anson Boon, Crawl) with younger sibling Anna (Mia Wasikowska, Stoker) and her girlfriend Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus, Hell Fest) eventually joining once Anna has summoned the strength to face her family. Family friend Liz (Lindsay Duncan, Little Joe) has also been invited, keeping up the long-standing tradition of the older single woman being present at many of the milestone moments throughout the years.
Awkwardly ignoring the elephant in the room, everyone but the gallows-humorous Lily sidesteps the reason for the weekend, preferring to treat the together time as a way to catch-up and eventually air some of the grievances that have been hanging over their heads. This mostly affects Jennifer and Anna who have never truly outgrown their sisterly bickering or issues they faced in their adult years when Jennifer was settling down and Anna was struggling with addiction and depression. Over dinners and an impromptu early Christmas celebration, the group works out more than a few kinks in their dynamics that have been holding them all back from moving forward. Emboldened by Lily’s seemingly fearless way of staring her impending death squarely in the eyes, the quieter family members find their voice to say what’s been on their mind…and register their pain in saying good-bye to their loved one.
It should go without saying that Blackbird is a tough watch but not necessarily a tough sit. It’s runs a relatively brisk 97 minutes and while the situations are grim and the final stretch is particularly hard for the tender-hearted, the experience is preserved by the strong performances from the entire cast. Though I wouldn’t say the roles are a huge stretch for anyone (because they’ve all played variations on these in some way before), all the actors bring an intense sincerity to the work that aligns with the dignity the right to die movement has been fighting for. Those that oppose this choice will likely struggle with the film and its resolution but that shouldn’t deter one from absorbing a rather wonderful film.
The big thing that makes this movie a must in my book is to witness once again why Sarandon is one of the best actresses of her generation. Though she’s become a bit of a Hollywood outsider for her outspoken participation in politics that some see as divisive, I had to put my own feelings aside and let her performance speak for itself. I’ve seen some reviews from Blackbird’s early release at festival screenings rather lazily compare the role as bracingly similar to 1998’s Stepmom and while certain dots can be connected there’s a different light shining behind Sarandon’s eyes in this part. Watch the entire movie that can be viewed on her face when her character drops a glass in front of her family and has to rely on someone else to pick up her mess. Her struggle to maintain her composure is masked well…but not well enough for the audience to miss a crack of fear slip through.
If the film has a drawback, it’s that it’s one location setting lends a feeling of staginess that makes you feel often like you’re watching a filmed version of a play. I had forgotten while watching the movie that it was a remake of a foreign film and spent much of the time convinced it was an adaptation of a stage piece. I know there are certain limitations based on the scenario Torpe has created for this family but Michell is usually a more creative director with a better eye for movement than this. I wished he’d have let the film feel less cramped and more free to move around, though perhaps that claustrophobia was intended as a way to put audiences in the same emotional pressure-cooker as the family.
Made several years ago and receiving a small release in the festival circuit in 2019 , Blackbird is just now getting a tiny official theatrical release during this pandemic. Most people will thankfully discover this one in the comfort of their own homes, though, where they can take the time to go through this emotional journey with the family. Overall, I think Blackbird works particularly well as an at-home watch more than as a theatrical endeavor because at least in my house it seemed to inspire some good conversation after the fact on Lily’s choice. The movie, and Sarandon’s performance, are still on my mind several days later.