Digital Review – Blackbird (2019)

In recent weeks, one of the debates created by the current pandemic has been about killing – or not – Granny.  Director Roger Michell has brought together a top drawer list of talent in Blackbird to examine the same subject, but in a COVID-free environment.  The English language version of the 2014 Danish film, Silent Heart, it sets out to tackle the sensitive subject of euthanasia.

The Granny in question is Lily (Susan Sarandon), who lives in a beautiful coastal house with husband Paul (Sam Neill).  They’re joined for the weekend by their two daughters Jennifer (Kate Winslet) and Anna (Mia Wasikowska), along with their respective partners, and Lily’s oldest friend Liz (Lindsay Duncan) but this is no ordinary family get-together. Lily suffers from a serious illness and that they’ve come together for a specific reason is apparent from early on.  It’s no spoiler to say that she’s decided to die before her life becomes intolerable and the film follows the family as they react to impending events, as well as a few unexpected revelations.

It’s a sensitive subject, one on which you’d expect the film to have an opinion, but Michell and writer Christian Torpe, who also penned the script for the original version, tread a mainly balanced line, offering arguments both for (expressed by Lily) and against (voiced by Anna).  It’s left to us to make up our own minds and watch them come to terms with what is about to happen and their individual reactions.  But what should be a powerfully emotional drama is undermined by its setting, an immaculate house which looks less like a lived-in home than a set for an interiors magazine.  It’s sterile and the audience is kept even further at bay by frequent views into the house from outside through the windows.  It all creates a distance that prevents any true sense of involvement.

The characters, too, don’t always garner our sympathy.  The lingering sense of trying to conceal their feelings about the reality of the situation falls away to reveal the people underneath.  Lily herself, is controlling, which means her demise has been meticulously planned so all her adoring husband has to do is implement it when the time comes.  Daughters Jennifer and Anna are both so wrapped up in their own feelings, they’re almost oblivious to the situation being about their mother and not about them.  Our sympathies, in the main, lie with Paul: Sam Neill may not have the lion’s share of lines in the film, but his sensitive performance means he works wonders with what he’s given.  And, in truth, all of the cast rise to the occasion – Sarandon, especially – but we’re never allowed to get close enough to the characters to truly find out what lies beneath the surface.

Released at another time, Blackbird would probably have stimulated more debate on euthanasia.  As it is, its arrival on digital may mute that conversation.  Almost as regrettable is that what should have been an emotional, involving experience ends up being distant and cool, despite the considerable efforts of all concerned.  It’s a film with impressive talents on show, but sadly with little true heart.

★★★


Drama | Cert: 15 | Digital | Lionsage UK | 21 September 2020, 28th September 2020 (UK DVD) | Dir. Roger Michell | Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Lindsay Duncan, Mia Wasikowska, Sam Neill.