Review: At a Family Gathering Full of Drama, Emotion in Blackbird Sometimes Falls Short

When we first meet Lily (Susan Sarandon), it’s during a long and seemingly painful exercise of getting up and out of bed, getting dressed, and making it down the stairs to meet her husband Pall (Sam Neill). Lily has decided that this weekend will be her last on earth, choosing to end her long struggle with ALS after a special few days she has planned with family. Directed by Roger Michell (Notting Hill) and written by Christian Torpe (based on his original 2014 Danish drama Silent Heart, directed by Bille August), Blackbird feels like a stage play in many ways, and with its stellar cast, it manages to squeeze out a few genuine moments to reflect upon. There are also a few clunker moments that cheapen the impact of a film about a woman choosing to go out on her own terms.

Blackbird Image courtesy of TIFF

Lily decides to call together the people she loves most in the world to spend time at the family beach house before she takes part in an assisted suicide with the help of her doctor husband. Her elder daughter Jennifer (an almost unrecognizable Kate Winslet) comes with her loyal, if slightly square, husband Michael (Rainn Wilson) and their teen son Jonathan (Anson Boon). Her younger, less reliable daughter Anna (Mia Wasikowska) arrives with her on-again/off-again girlfriend Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus). As a bonus, they also invite Lily’s oldest and dearest friend Liz (Lindsay Duncan).

The idea is to spend a fulfilling weekend together, then everybody will leave so Lily can drift off into her forever sleep. But like most family gatherings, things don’t go quite as planned in the drama department. Secrets are spilled, dreams—both fulfilled and unfulfilled—are examined, and everyone seems to have a moment where they decide they aren’t ready to let Lily go so soon and threaten to call the whole thing off. Lily decides she wants to have one last Christmas celebration—tree, lights, presents, dinner—even though it’s only the early fall, adding to the strain of this family being forced into a space together.

As she often does, Sarandon carries herself with calm, grace and dignity in this slightly underwritten role. She does a particularly admirable job portraying Lily’s afflictions and how difficult and exhausting just walking down to the beach can be for her. But everyone seems eager to help make her last couple of days enjoyable. Some of the best scenes involve Lily and her sole grandchild, who is basically a grown man at this point but still young enough not to be afraid to ask tough questions and talk plainly and honestly to his grandmother, with whom he’s clearly very close.

Winslet, as the busybody who overthinks every decision, and Wasikowska, as the mentally unstable one, take turns being a bit much throughout Blackbird. Neill is so agreeable that he almost vanishes even when he’s front and center on camera; we rarely get a real sense of what his feelings are about helping his wife die. He gives us a few forlorn looks and a few tears but nothing we can cling to in order to feel for the guy the way we want to.

As family dramas go, it’s a heavy subject that is given a light touch when it comes to its emotional weight. The grown children are both too selfish to put aside their own issues for a couple of nights, instead deciding to burden their mother with these petty conflicts in her final hours. Maybe that’s the point of the film, but I just found it irritating and cruel. This blend of British, Australian and American actors are so good that they carry the screenplay beyond the rather muted words and give the work some genuine heft, as a worthy drama should have. The real test of how engaged Blackbird gets you is in the final sequence. You are clearly meant to be crying or at least experiencing that familiar tickle in the back of your throat that precedes tears; I’ll admit, I felt neither of those things, and that was a bit disappointing. There are things here to like, certainly, but if you don’t care about Susan Sarandon dying, surrounded by the people who mean the most to her, at the end of a movie, the problem isn’t with you.

The film can now be streamed via Gene Siskel Film Center’s Film Center From Your Sofa.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.