Blackbird review – Sarandon and Winslet's lifeless death drama
More than any other major festival, Toronto is quite often blinded by stars. A smattering of of recognisable faces in a film can distract programmers from a small thing like quality and so the lineup reliably features at least four or five flashy but time-wasting disappointments, forgettable films that will live and die at the festival, pre-premiere hype evaporating by the time the credits roll.
One of this year’s most glaring examples is Blackbird, a film that might tempt festivalgoers with its high-wattage cast but will struggle to exist anywhere else. The promise of Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Mia Wasikowka and Sam Neill is enticing, especially given steerage by Roger Michell, a solid director whose credits include Notting Hill, Le Week-End and 2017’s underrated adaptation of My Cousin Rachel. But it’s all just window dressing, a superficial sheen added to a perfunctory script that doesn’t go anywhere or do anything we haven’t seen many times before. It’s less of a film and more of an actors’ workshop, an exercise for everyone involved but meaningless to us.
Lily (Susan Sarandon) is dying and by the end of this weekend, she’ll be dead. The pain of losing herself to illness is too much to bear so she decides, with help from her husband, Paul (Sam Neill), that she’ll expedite the process and invites her family to the house so they can spend her final days together. But there’s tension between her daughters, the uptight Jennifer (Kate Winslet) and the wayward Anna (Mia Wasikowska), and it threatens to destroy Lily’s perfectly laid out plan.
There are so many familiar ingredients at play here that in order to rise above mediocrity, some remarkable insight or at least sparkling dialogue would be required to justify the film’s existence. We’ve seen a similar version of every element here before: the give-no-fucks terminally ill matriarch who quips rather than mopes, the repressed married sister who clashes with her freewheeling younger gay sibling, the reserved teen who finally comes out of his shell, the lesbian girlfriend whose interests include football and beer and the loyal husband who suffers in silence. It’s boringly reheated and writer Christian Torpe, who also wrote the Danish film this is based on, doesn’t have much in his arsenal other than a few lame attempts at gallows humour and so relies heavily on the actors to do the heavy lifting.
But Winslet is miscast, Sarandon is coasting, Neill is sleepwalking and Wasikowska, an extremely talented yet recently underused actor, is stuck playing the sort of role she should have grown out of by now. Also, are we really still associating rebellion with being gay and having a buttoned up lifestyle with being straight? A far more interesting dynamic would have switched the sisters’ sexuality but that would have required thinking outside of a very small box. The most interesting actor on screen is a soulful Lindsey Duncan as Lily’s old friend and a more interesting film would have focused on that pairing above the undercooked family drama that unfolds. It’s never really possible to buy into the characters as a family given how thinly etched their relationships are to one another and so when the inevitable fireworks arrive, it’s more like someone waving a sparkler in your face.
Blackbird is a politely made film in search of meaning it’s never able to find, an empty, if thankfully short, piece of festival fodder, its death arriving mercifully soon.