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TIFF 2019 Review: Blackbird

Image Courtesy of TIFF

Death is not something we collectively like to talk about. It’s uncomfortable even in its inevitability.  Yet there is not one of us that death hasn’t touched, not one of us who hasn’t lost a loved one.  In Roger Michell‘s film Blackbird, life, death, and its impact on family is examined in the face of an impending loss.

Lily (Susan Sarandon) is a feisty, independent woman.  We know this as we see her wave off offers of help from her husband, Paul (Sam Neill) while she tries to dress herself and as she moves around their oceanside home.  However, a terminal illness is slowly taking away that independence and having examined her options, and knowing the horrific reality that lies ahead, Lily makes the decision to end her own life on her own terms.

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First, Lily wants one last weekend with her family – not to mourn her, but just to enjoy the present.  Her two daughters Jennifer (Kate Winslet) and Anna (Mia Wasikowska) arrive with their partners (Rainn Wilson and Bex Taylor-Klaus).  Her longest friend Liz (Lindsay Duncan) is also present, with plenty of stories of their college days.  Everything starts off well enough with charades being played and wine flowing.  But there are unresolved conflicts here.  Family drama slowly starts to bubble to the surface and what is meant to be a peaceful, reflective departure for Lily soon turns contentious.

Sarandon manages to play Lily with levity, despite her character’s ultimate decision.  But there are subtleties to her performance as well – physical in the slight lag in her left foot while she walks, the emotional depth behind Lily’s eyes when she feels no one is looking.  The other characters in the family respond in personality to her.  None of them stretch their acting abilities too far here, yet the emotion still seems present, especially during a particularly touching scene around the dinner table.  While the third act of the film becomes overwrought with emotion (and perhaps one too many twists in the family drama arise) the cast still seems to keep things grounded.

With this small group of actors and singular simple environment, this is a film that could easily have been a play. Even the way Michell has blocked and shot his scenes seems to scream theatre.  This isn’t necessarily a detriment, though perhaps less cinematic in scheme.

When we meet Lily her decision has already been made, the conversations with her loved ones alluded to but never seen.  In this way, Blackbird never strays too far into the politics of euthanasia, though certainly, the ethical and legal battles are all there under its surface.  Based on the Danish film Silent Heart written by Christian Trope, who also pens the English adaptation here, Blackbird manages largely to avoid the pull of moral argument.  Instead, while certainly Lily’s death is always present, the focus of Blackbird is on life and what it means to all of us to truly live.

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