Oftentimes when we visit elderly and/ or sick friends and family, we wonder if it will possibly be the last time we’ll speak to them. This has only been amplified as Covid-19 has continued to spread across the world; many have been forced to face the mortality of their loved ones (healthy or not) as well as themselves. I think about the many things left unsaid between myself and others, apologies that I owe and that I feel are owed to me, and how difficult it is to find the will and courage to even act on these thoughts. But what if the next time you saw a loved one, you knew it was the last time? Could you speak your truths then? Or are some things better left alone?
Blackbird, the latest film from British director Roger Michell, is a family drama that explores a number of personal and emotional questions, to which there are no easy answers. A remake of the Danish film Silent Heart, it stars Susan Sarandon as Lily, a woman who is beginning to suffer the advanced symptoms of ALS. Lily can no longer use one of her arms well and struggles to stay on her feet, and both she and her husband Paul (Sam Neill) know that the worst is yet to come. “I know it’s coming toward me and I do not want it” Lily says as she stares down her impending end. So with Paul’s assistance, she plans to end her life on her own terms, before she’s no longer able to make any decisions for herself.
Lily holds a final weekend with her loved ones before her planned death, inviting her two daughters, Jennifer (Kate Winslet) and Anna (Mia Wasikowska), and her best friend, Elizabeth (Lindsay Duncan), to stay at her beachside home. The backdrop of the water, sand dunes, and salt marshes – filmed next to Winslet’s own home near West Wittering – offers beautiful and melancholic imagery. The beach mirrors Lily’s own state: there’s a look of weary decay but still plenty of beauty and strength to be found. Gorgeous shots of the rising and setting sun further accentuate Blackbird‘s symbolism of life and death, but the film wisely keeps its focus on the characters and their relationships, with nearly all of the action taking place inside the house through dialogue.
In fact, Blackbird often comes across as more of a stage play. It’s a script ruled by dialogue, set in a singular location, with a small but exceptionally talented cast, not unlike a limited engagement you might see on Broadway or London’s West End. The performances are what carry the film; Winslet, a truly remarkable talent, is almost unrecognizable as Jennifer, a tightly wound wife and mother who wants Lily’s final weekend to go by quickly and without incident. Rainn Wilson plays her husband, Michael, in one of his best performances to date. Michael is that relative we all have, almost the textbook definition of a square (Anna refers to him as “boring”) who’s awkward attempts at conversation with his son (Anson Boon) and others are genuinely hilarious and charming thanks to Wilson’s efforts. As unresolved drama between the sisters and their mother continuously boils over the weekend, Michael proves to be an essential presence, able to recover quickly and reinitiate normal conversation after heavy moments.
Jennifer and Anna have plenty of issues between their mother, their father, and each other, and it allows the film to explore complicated and often uncomfortable hard truths. Blackbird deals with the need for more time and more control when you’ve found yourself in a situation that affords you neither one. So much of the film contains things that we all wish we could say to our loved ones, but that so few get the opportunity to express before it’s too late. It’s almost a fantasy in that regard, a sort of wish fulfillment under the guise of a standard drama. You’d be hard-pressed to not begin thinking about your own family, and what remains unsaid or unsettled between you.
Michell’s film is certainly emotionally heavy, but never once does it come across as gloomy or bleak. Rays of sunshine are constantly spilling into the house, and the mood never reaches a low that it can’t easily climb out of. There are uncomfortable and brutally honest moments, but these are balanced out by light humor and tender, softer scenes. There’s a consistent feeling of hope throughout the movie – not hope that Lily will miraculously recover from her illness, but hope for some form of catharsis and closure for the all-too-relatable characters.
It’s not always perfect; the film occasionally veers too far off into secondary plot lines that aren’t nearly as engaging as the one between Lily and her daughters. These both slow the film down and distract from the more urgent and interesting subject matter. A pivotal scene of the family sitting down for one last dinner together gets dangerously close to taking you out of the film. The dialogue reaches a point that feels a bit too unnatural, where it almost feels like it’s no longer characters interacting with each other in a believable way, but rather the obvious writing of someone having their own insights as they’re typing out the script. The scene is thankfully saved by an outburst by Anna, but it’s still one of the few times the movie threatens to lose its audience among its own musings.
Blackbird is the story of a family that needs to learn how to come together in the wake of a powerful absence, or rather, because of it. It’s both heartbreaking and heartwarming, and sweet but never sappy. There’s a lightness to it that makes it instantly accessible, but it also manages to not be easy or predictable. That’s an impressive feat. It’s a film that leaves you with plenty of pondering to do for yourself, and hopefully, a stronger sense of gratefulness for the time you’ve had.