The poster for Roger Michell’s film Blackbird sees the top half with of an arms folded Susan Sarandon, looking down the barrel of the camera with a look of “mother knows best”, while the bottom half sees Kate Winslet, Mia Wasikowska, Sam Neill and Rainn Wilson all looking in different directions with actorly concern. This juxtaposition is at the heart of everything that is right and everything that is wrong with Blackbird.
Taking place over a weekend, Susan Sarandon plays Lily a woman suffering through the mid-part of a battle with ALS (or Motor Neurone Disease to us in the UK), her and her doctor husband Paul (Sam Neill) assemble their family – daughters Jennifer and Anna (Kate Winslet, Mia Wasikowska), their respective other halves Michael and Chris (Rainn Wilson, Bex Taylor-Klaus), her grandson Jonathan (Anson Boon) and best friend Elizabeth (Lindsay Duncan).
The premise is nothing new, and a cursory glance online tells you that Diane Keaton was considered to star in the lead role only adding to the been-there feeling evoked by a film such as The Family Stone. The set up of a family gathering around as one of the parents prepares to die is such fodder for “actorly” drama that you can feel the respective cast warming up their shouting voices behind the camera.
The use of ALS in lieu of the more vaguely defined cinematic use of cancer (often a catch-all for looking great while dying in cinema) is well placed, and Sarandon has clearly looked into it. For anyone with even the vaguest experience with an ill loved one, especially a parent, there is the feeling of authenticity to her plight, and to the toll, it takes on her husband Sam Neill.
The film’s cliche’s however, threaten to swamp the entire film. Winslet is the older daughter, stuffy and uptight with an apparently “boring” husband in Wilson, their son Boon wants to be in the arts but they want a more academic career for him. Wasikowska is the more flighty one almost walking around with a sign saying “ISSUES” to signal she’s got something to hide, and the criminally underwritten girlfriend played well by Taylor-Klaus. Even Duncan who is often cast in the role as stern British lady is here cast as… well a stern British lady.
The writing is laden with cliche, only occasionally offering wit and invention, lots of talking about emotion. This is a film that puts the talk in talkie, and while a little chat never hurt a drama, the dialogue at times is so trite you feel like this might have been better served as a play. It’s origins as a Danish film might help explain why this feels so tried and tested but even so, there’s nothing in the film that ever shocks. Winslet needs to cut loose, Wasikowska needs to stay the course.
All of this would be an issue if the cast weren’t as good as they. Sarandon has walked similar ground with her 90s weepy Stepmom, but even so, and while she plays the typical slightly hippie-type of middle-class American that doesn’t exist anywhere except the movies, she manages to convince you that what you’re seeing is a fully rounded human being. The entire ensemble manages to do the absolute most with their mostly one-dimensional roles, and Rainn Wilson shows no sign of The Office-type while playing a boring middle-class type.
The film’s centrepiece, a mock-up Christmas day with presents, a joint, and a few revelations is what salvages the film’s cliches, the chemistry that the cast have is clear here, and there are moments of levity, not least when Winslet is presented with a vibrator by her mother. The LGBT subplot is also nicely drawn, never made a big deal of, which is progressive in it’s matter-of-factness.
The direction helps. Michell is a director known for various genres including fluffy romcom, psychological thriller and drama. While his direction here is understated and naturalistic, never coming close to the claustrophobia of The Lost Honour of Christopher Jeffries, nor the warm light fairytale of Le Week-End, the film looks gorgeous, with moments where visuals take over and shot composition becomes impressive, but these are when moments of acting have taken a backstage, for the most part Michell is happy to let the camera capture performances as they unfold.
For those looking for a quaint, actor’s piece might not be disappointed with this, it’s filled with good performances by people playing close to their usual types and with very little in the way of challenging material, for other’s the cliches might prove a little too annoying to bare. But, as a piece of acting and at a thankfully brief ninety-seven minutes it’s like most family gatherings, at times frustrating, at times heartwarming, but you’ll be glad when it’s time to go home.
Dir: Roger Michell
Scr: Christian Torpe
Cast: Susan Sarandon, Sam Neill, Kate Winslet, Rainn Wilson, Mia Wasikowska, Lindsay Duncan, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Anson Boon
Prd: David Bernardi, Sheryl Clark, Rob Van Norden
DOP: Mike Eley
Music: Peter Gregson
Runtime: 98 minutes
Blackbird is on Digital Download now and DVD 28 September from Lionsgate UK