“When’s it happening?” asks Jonathan (Anson Boon), a teenager getting antsy at a family gathering. His parents, Jennifer (Kate Winslet) and Michael (Rainn Wilson), shoot him a STFU glare. “Soon,” replies his grandmother Lily (Susan Sarandon), entering the living room and smiling at him. The group — along with Jennifer’s sister Anna (Mia Wasikowska) and Anna’s girlfriend, Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus) — has ostensibly gathered to the posh beach house owned by the matriarch and her husband, Paul (Sam Neill), for Thanksgiving dinner. There is another agenda in the works, however. Lily has been afflicted with ALS for a while, and things are starting to get bad. So she’s decided to take a fatal dose of medicine and go gently into the night. That’s the “it” Jonathan inquired about. The “soon” part is in two days.
Before that happens, however, Lily wants to spend what little time she has left with her loved ones and her very best friend, Liz (Lindsay Duncan). Hence the gathering, which doubles as a sort of wake featuring an early Christmas, a stroll along the shore recalling pleasant memories (with a pit stop at the the site of a daughter’s conception many, many years ago), a huge feast, some one-on-one chats and several expensive bottles of wine. Anecdotes are shared, a poem is recited — more like rapped, really, complete with group table-thumping — and maybe a joint or two get passed around. The lady does not want to go out swinging, but smiling.
For the first hour or so of Blackbird, this is what we get: a casual, almost laid-back story of an upper-middle-class family saying au revoir to one of their own. There are hints of past turmoil, and age-old grudges rearing their ugly heads. The two grown sisters definitely have a history, given that Jennifer is a case study in Type A uptight-itude and Anna has cultivated a serious black-sheep vibe. One person in particular feels a little wary about signing off on the whole euthanasia idea. But director Roger Michell — a South African filmmaker whose resumé includes everything from the classic BBC miniseries The Buddha of Suburbia to Changing Lanes to Notting Hill — and screenwriter Christian Thorpe more or less drop viewers directly into the “acceptance” phase of Kübler-Ross‘s stages of grief. (It isn’t surprising that Thorpe is penning an English-language version of his screenplay for the 2014 Danish movie Silent Heart; the movie has a distinctly European mood to it.) It even takes a shockingly long time for the sorrowful strings to kick in on the score. This isn’t a death movie so much as a slightly grief-tinged hang-out movie set in an interior decorator’s dream come true.
And then it’s as if someone nudges Blackbird in the ribs, taps their watch and reminds the film that it’s supposed to be a melodrama, not a mellow in memoriam, and a far more typical story of family feuding kicks in. Accusations are hurled, voices are raised, secrets are revealed, and wounds are reopened so they can heal that much quicker. The spell breaks, at which point you may start to notice that some of these characters seem a little thin, and others don’t seem like characters at all so much as a collection of crude mannerisms, tics and unaddressed script notes. Winslet does a lot with a little in terms of her coiled-spring of a daughter; Wasikowska is a fine actor who finds herself stymied by what she’s got to work with here; Wilson channels amiable nerdiness, Neill is all gray-fox paternal sturdiness and Sarandon does her benevolent earth-mother thing. There are too many splendid little touches in this tale of letting go to dismiss it entirely, and too many latebreaking wrong turns it takes to completely forgive it. What you’re left with is the cinematic equivalent of a clipped-wing plummet.