Streaming Review

Blackbird review – bizarre life and death drama fails to fly

Roger Michell's remake of a Swedish tearjerker wastes a fine cast on a script that fails to escape a lingering feeling of inauthenticity

There is something not quite right about this comedy-drama from Roger Michell, a remake of the Swedish movie Silent Heart whose sterile, Scandi tendencies it inherits, along with its screenwriter Christian Torpe. Blackbird boasts a stellar cast that includes Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Mia Wasikowska, Rainn Wilson, and Sam Neill. But I couldn't escape the feeling that, in places, this movie is strangely, quietly insane. Nothing about it rings true; not the situation, not the characters, not the outcome.

Blackbird is about a no-nonsense matriarch, player by Sarandon, who is suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and so has gathered her family to say goodbye. It becomes apparent that she is planning to be euthanised within days, that the family know this, and that her husband – Neill, an ethereal presence – will plead ignorant to the authorities when the time comes, claiming it was a suicide. So they calmly assemble in the couple's sleek, hygge-y home, wearing warm cardigans, drinking coffee and juice. There’s an obligatory contemplative walk on the beach somewhere, too.

Anyone who has ever been seen a film about a family getting together in this stagey way knows that they're powder kegs waiting to explode – more so when one of the characters is planning on committing suicide. This is essentially another ensemble dramedy that assembles a cast of disillusioned, wayward, and bitter middle-class people, puts them in a big house during a holiday (though this Christmas is fake), and waits for that first, inevitable, passive-aggressive comment to set things in motion. And after an hour of frivolity, that's just what happens.

Michell is a journeyman director of sorts – equal hits and misses, usually based on the strength of the script. But his films can often feel passive, and here he relies too heavily on the soundtrack's maudlin strings to paint in the required tone. At times the director manages the round-the-table banter that made his Notting Hill so infectious. But the material also has a numbing kind of flatness and weightlessness, like it was deemed reductive to try and make the deeper, more complicated movie. The performances feel neutered by the script, meaning that nobody here is ever quite convincing, nor do these characters ever escape the cliches of their archetypes (Wasikowska's suicidal, medicated lesbian, especially, is reduced to a bag of cliches).

Blackbird's underlying inauthenticity is exemplified by a truly bizarre moment when Winslet (miscast as the family's prissy, upright sister) and Wilson, sorting through old photographs, get into a fight. She says he's boring and throws a glass of wine over his nice cardigan. Then – and you're praying that this isn't going to happen the second before it does – the two lock eyes and begin to furiously kiss, before falling on the floor to have sex. This scene (played for laughs?) has such an alien quality, as though transposed from a completely different film. Nothing we've been told sets up a moment like this – or permits it. It just happens.

Blackbird is, unashamedly, a tear-jerker, a movie designed – like Sarandon's other famous weepy Stepmom – to pull at your heartstrings. I've always loathed this type of film because its purpose is made all-too-clear from that monicker alone: “tearjerker.” Yes, all movies are manipulation, but the effect is way better when you're less aware of the intentions. Blackbird has no shame in its bid to stir up your emotions – everything has been calculated as such – which directly offsets its ability to deliver on such terms.

In small moments, Sarandon finds some of the understated poignancy a film of this type requires through facial acting alone. In one scene, after accidentally smashing a glass, the family rushing to fuss around her, Michell simply allows the camera to sit on the actor's expression in an unbroken shot as she fights back tears and seems to consider the weight of the decision. Elsewhere, the cast are simply left to fly around her, never quite finding the right place to land.

Blackbird is now available on various streaming services.

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