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‘Blackbird’ an elegant, elegiac expression of goodbye

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So much of Hollywood is driven by spectacle. There’s a bigger-is-better ethos at work that drives more and more of the industry with each passing year, often crowding out some of the less flashy fare. Yet one could argue that movies work even more effectively as a medium for delivering smaller, more intimate stories. Bigger might be better, but sometimes, smaller is superb.

Take “Blackbird,” the new film directed by Roger Michell. A remake of the 2014 Dutch film “Silent Heart,” “Blackbird” is the story of an ailing matriarch bringing her family together for one final celebration of their lives together before her death – a death that she intends to be entirely on her own terms.

Featuring an absolutely stacked cast, “Blackbird” is a heartfelt meditation on the familial complexities that come with death and a look at how an impending loss can impact our choices. It’s a movie about choices and wrestling with the consequences of those choices and how, in the end, we must allow people to make those choices for themselves.

Lily (Susan Sarandon, “Fearless”) has lived a very rich life, from her hippie youth through her successful career with her loving family and friends by her side. This weekend, she would like them all to be by her side once again, only this time will be the last.

Lily suffers from a degenerative disease and is mere weeks away from losing all physical movement. Rather than live such a life, she has instead chosen to die. With the assistance of her husband Paul (Sam Neill, “Ride Like a Girl”) – a physician – she is going to ingest a lethal dosage of phenobarbital and die.

In an effort to say goodbye, Lily and Paul have invited their family to join them in the Hamptons for one final weekend – a chance to celebrate Lily’s life before bidding her farewell. There’s uptight elder daughter Jennifer (Kate Winslet, “Ammonite”), her straight-laced husband Michael (Rainn Wilson, TV’s “Utopia”) and their teenage son Jonathan (Anson Boon, “1917”). Younger daughter Anna (Mia Wasikowska, “Judy & Punch”) arrives late, with on-again-off-again partner Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus, TV’s “13 Reasons Why”). Completing the picture is Liz (Lindsay Duncan, “Made in Italy”), Lily’s college roommate and beloved best friend.

Everyone assembles at the house with the intent of giving Lily the final days that she wants. Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of complex feelings regarding her decision, which in turn results in a number of other relationship issues bubbling to the surface. And over the course of a weekend designed to be both mundane and special – one minute, they’re doing crosswords on the couch, the next, it’s early Christmas – people come together to revisit the many things that, good or bad, make them the family that they are … and that they will remain, even after Lily is gone.

“Blackbird” is about saying goodbye. It is about finding the strength to do what you believe to be best, even if you know it will be a struggle for those close to you. It’s about how to deal with the reopening of wounds thought long healed, old pain brought forth by the anticipation of loss. And it’s about the difference between what we know about the people we love and what we merely think that we know. Reckoning with loss is no less difficult for being done before said loss occurs.

One of the things I found most compelling about “Blackbird” is how well it has assembled what it essentially a closed system. The film is remarkably self-contained, taking place in a single setting with a cast of just eight. Now, granted, the single setting is the beachside house belonging to Kate Winslet’s neighbor and the cast is one-quarter Oscar winners, but still – it’s a story that benefits from compactness, packing a huge emotional punch without resorting to bombast.

Directorially, Michell manages to artfully do what so many in his profession are seemingly unable to handle – he gets out of the way. This is not a showy film in those terms, though he does make some slightly unorthodox aesthetic choices that are quite successful. But Michell clearly understands the sheer volume of talent that he has at his disposal and is happy to focus on turning those talents loose on the story.

And again – why wouldn’t he? I mean, look at this group. Sarandon gives an excellent turn, one simply overflowing with quiet strength and dignity. She finds the right balance of physicality, giving us that impression of frailty, while also evoking equal parts of bravura and anxiety. Winslet is typically strong as well, endowing Jennifer with a sense of being wound a turn or two too tightly. On the other end, Wasikowska uses Anna’s flightiness to mask her inner turmoil of insecurity and pain. The sisterly dynamic between Winslet and Wasikowska rings true; their chemistry assures a degree of verisimilitude regarding their sibling rivalry.

Neill is very good in his usual low-key way; he’s got this sort of semi-cool late-in-life professional down pat. Wilson is an amiable bore as Michael, a dad joke embodied. Duncan is the perfect representation of a woman of a certain age, happy with now even as she romanticizes the past. Taylor-Klaus evokes the awkwardness that comes with being the odd person out in a sad situation. And Boon gives Jonathan just the right teenage boy’s blend of affection for and embarrassment by family.

“Blackbird” is an emotionally impactful family drama, one defined by relationships that will likely ring familiar to many viewers. This is a relatively small film driven by big feelings – feelings elicited and earned by an octet of outstanding performers. Life is precious, and never more so than when we say goodbye.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Friday, 18 September 2020 10:07

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