When you sit down for a movie, it can go one of two ways: either it fulfills its purpose of entertaining the viewer or leaves them unsatisfied. And in the case of Roger Michell’s Blackbird, I felt myself falling into the second category. Because, though I am one for reinterpretations of classic tales, I’m not always the biggest supporter of paint-by-numbers remakes of recent films. And even if such a version stars Academy Award darlings like Susan Sarandon and Kate Winslet, not even their precious faces can save this Pier 1 semi-annual sale of family dramas.
Blackbird tells the story of Lily (Sarandon, “The Jesus Rolls”), a confident, modern, and cool matriarch that just happens to have an unspecified terminal illness. In the interest of avoiding further hardship, Lily and her husband Paul (Sam Neill, “Sweet Country”) invite their family and friends for one last weekend together, which by the end of, Lily plans to take her own life. But as tensions rise, secrets unravel and other bits of drama unfold, this bittersweet get-together becomes anything but peaceful.
Now, I’m not saying that I don’t enjoy a good “The Big Chill” type of situation. In fact, I feel like Hollywood tends to not make enough of those in recent years. But when I (a 30-something year old that grew up on a big dose of Holly Hunter and Lifetime movies) is in search of a juicy family drama, Blackbird is far from quenching my thirst. Why? Well, let’s just say that this is an example of a movie that has a fascinating concept, but has no idea how to execute it.
Sadly, this same phrase can be applied to the original Danish film, “Silent Heart,” from which Blackbird is adapted from. They both have the same screenwriter, Christian Torpe, who continues to serve the same beat-for-beat moments found in the original, but with some twists. For starts, Lily’s youngest daughter, Anna (Mia Wasikowska, “Piercing”) is now a lesbian. Certain other characters try to make different dramatic decisions than their Danish counterparts, but still, none of these (along with other) changes makes the overall story any better. In fact, it kind of makes it worse.
When looking at the most generic description of the plot, it would perhaps have been better served as a surprise. Not to the audience, but to the characters. Because when all of them are aware of Lily’s eventual demise when Sunday evening comes about, it throws all of the character’s motivations out the window. The tension of them knowing what they’re getting into seems to be robbed, making the events that unfold come across as an ultimately boring final product.
Maybe this is the disgruntled storyteller within, screaming for attention, but this tale has so much potential for high stakes drama and surprises throughout. But when Torpe already begins the story with no true set up and way too much exposition, making every moment on screen come across as forced rather than earned.
This especially becomes a point of contention when looking through each of the character’s subplots. From Anna’s battles with her inner demons to Jennifer (Winslet, “Wonder Wheel”) and Michael (Rainn Wilson, “The Meg”) trying to change their blandness, Torpe never knows how to give enough development to each of the story’s key players. But perhaps the oddest example of this comes in the form of an unconventional romance. It’s one that the film constantly hints towards and wants to come across as a scandalous revelation. But what it ultimately pans out into is nothing short of shrug worthy.
Thankfully, much of the cast keeps Blackbird from being a total waste. Mia Wasikowska does her best to play to the complexities of Anna while supporting players like Bex Taylor-Klaus (“The Last Witch Hunter”) and Lindsay Duncan (“Alice Through the Looking Glass”) make every effort to work through what little is offered on the page. As for Sarandon and Winslet, there’s nothing that makes either of their portrayals particularly inspiring, as they both evoke performances of their past in an almost sleepwalking fashion.
Overall, Blackbird is a film that suffers from its repetitive nature. Audiences have seen these familiar beats, plot devices, and dramatic spins multiple times over. And considering the almost copycat fashion between the original Danish film and its remake, Michell’s final product comes across more like an excuse for him and his actor friends to rent a beach house rather than making any kind of outstanding work. And when telling a story with so much possibility for cinematic greatness, that’s a real shame.