One of the most honest and breathtaking family dramas of the year.
Most film-savvy folks tend to give remakes too hard of a time; and in particular, remakes of foreign films. The usual consensus has always been that Hollywood will almost always happily jump at the chance to capitalize on a proven property that has had success elsewhere and re-craft it for stateside audiences, most of whom (they can rightly assume) are unfamiliar with the original. Sure, the desire for a quick box-office hit may be at the center of this kind of action, but overall I feel remakes get more of a bad break than many of them legitimately deserve. For me, the most fascinating thing about a foreign film being remade for an English-speaking audience is noting the story’s universality when it comes to the predicaments the characters find themselves in and their reactions to them. It’s a telling way to note how things effect us as humans, no matter what language we speak. Director Roger Michell and screenwriter Christian Torpe must feel the same way judging by their collaboration on Blackbird, the remake of Torpe’s own 2014 Danish work which beautifully makes the case for the remake.
In Blackbird, longtime married couple Lily (Susan Sarandon) and Paul (Sam Neill) have been living with the debilitating illness that has been wreaking havoc on the former’s body. When their family arrives for a weekend stay to celebrate her birthday, Lily makes the startling announcement that, having gotten Paul’s blessing, she will take an overdose of pills and end her life before the disease does. As everyone there slowly accept the news, Lily and Paul’s two daughters, Jennifer (Kate Winslet) and Anna (Mia Wasikowska) struggle with having to say goodbye.
While most wouldn’t expect a drama as straightforward and emotionally-driven as Blackbird to wow on a technical level, it nonetheless does. The premise of the film is one of conflict and grief, but Michell and his team enliven the whole production through a variety of touches. Blackbird’s pacing is fairly swift, with the whole runtime not even reaching 100 minutes. The director’s economical side shows itself as every scene within Blackbird feels necessary and no one moment or character overstays their welcome. At the same time, Michell knows how to let scenes play out naturally between character and never once gives the impression that they’re under the careful eye of the clock. Making the film a visual treat is Mike Eley’s cinematography, which drapes the film in a variety of tones that venture from soft, to serene, to muscular, to rich. Each scene featuring family members saying goodbye is draped in such a beauty that it cannot help but bring the audience closer to them and their essence as flesh and blood people we can no doubt see ourselves in. Punctuating all of this are a pair of spectacular ending shots which are simple in their execution, yet don’t shortchange the human impact of what both the characters and the audience has just experienced.
Blackbird however is a drama; and quite an effecting one at that. The film does a good job of wearing its heart on its sleeve at just the right instances while also adding some levity to the whole affair. A scene between Lily and grandson Jonathan (Anson Boon) in which the pair are decorating the Christmas tree for an early holiday celebration the family is spontaneously throwing is made slightly less heavy when the former playfully quips that this seems like the time for her to spout some pearls of wisdom. When Blackbird does get into a purely emotional scene, it plunges straight in and doesn’t let up. A combative exchange between the distant Anna and Jennifer in which the pair strongly disagree about their mother’s decision remains noteworthy for the way it shows the two sisters finally sharing something together after years of not knowing one another. Meanwhile, the film’s climax remains eternally powerful as every member of the family braces themselves for what they all realize is one of the most defining moments of their lives. There are no huge surprises in Blackbird from a plot perspective. Yet every moment about it rings as a surprise that’s both honest and true, culminating in a moving conclusion that’s so richly earned.
Despite being a replacement for Diane Keaton, Sarandon was so totally the perfect choice for Lily. The actress’s talents haven’t been squandered lately, but they also haven’t put to the kind of use that’s worthy of her. Here the Oscar-winner enjoys her richest role in quite some time as a woman who has made peace with the life she’s led while letting go in her own way. Sarandon manages such a delicacy and poetry through every scene, leading up to her final moments in Blackbird where she’s quite possibly at her most vulnerable. The rest of the cast is great, especially Wasikowska as the troubled Anna, Neill as the heartbroken Paul and Rainn Wilson as Jennifer’s ever-supportive husband, Michael. Yet it’s Winslet who proves the biggest standout apart from the film’s lead. As Jennifer, the actress is commanding and compelling as a woman whose life has been made up of being able to have a firm handle on everything around her who now finds herself at a total loss.
Michell remains a director who continues to hover just below the kind of universal prominence and acclaim he deserves. For years the filmmaker has proven to be a skilled hand at telling a multitude of stories from various worlds featuring a vast array of characters. The fairy tale romance at the center of Notting Hill, the moral conflict driving Changing Lanes, the humorous desperation of morning TV in Morning Glory and the quiet, steady romantic suspense in My Cousin Rachel all show a filmmaker eager to lose himself in one world after another and uncover the people who exist there. Blackbird may be one of Michell’s more quiet, unassuming offerings, but it contains that same blend of honest curiosity and sensitive storytelling sensibilities which make every succeeding film he creates worthy of attention and discovery.