Turns out you can make a silk purse from a sow’s ear, if “you” are Susan Sarandon, Sam Neill, Kate Winslet and Mia Wasikowska.
Those big-time talents lead the cast of “Blackbird.” It’s their attention to detail that feels real in the Roger Michell soap opera, which is worth seeing despite several issues.
Arrayed around a showplace home that looks like the set of a Pottery Barn catalog, those actors navigate a script that is overly determined, with each revelation timed to explode when it will have emotional impact, even if it doesn’t make sense for the story.
And it suffers from what I think of as Rich People Syndrome, “realistic” movies that feel like fairy tales because they present One Big Problem while removing day-to-day worries such as money, health care and time that would help the other 99% of us relate.
The “problem” is death. Specifically, dying matriarch Lily (Sarandon) has gathered her family, in what appears to be autumn somewhere on the Eastern Seaboard, for one last Christmas before she takes an overdose of painkillers. The family is at varying degrees of acceptance of this plan, so they eat cake, play charades and reveal some of their own secrets while getting used to the idea.
All of this feels like it’s been done before, and not just because “Blackbird” is a remake of the Danish “Silent Heart,” but once you get past the phoniness of the premise, there is a lot to like in Michell’s movie. Sarandon, in what is weirdly her second plan-for-my-husband’s-romantic-future-after-I-die movie (the first being “Stepmom”), expertly negotiates the gallows humor (“Are you up? Are you coming down [for breakfast]? I’ll be dead soon”) and the wistful scenes in which her character doubts her own plan. There’s a lovely, wordless moment when she’s looking into her enormous picture windows at her family decorating a Christmas tree, the sort of domestic scene she’ll soon miss out on.
Winslet and Wasikowska play Sarandon’s and Neill’s daughters, uptight Jennifer and ne’er-do-well Anna, respectively. They’re at each other’s throat for most of the movie, with varying degrees of civility, but their fine performances blend powerfully in a complex argument about whether they can support their mother’s decision, which neither of them completely understands and which they’ve used different tactics to attempt to derail.
“I need more time!” shouts Anna, undoubtedly echoing something her mother has said in pre-acceptance moments, to which Jennifer ruefully replies, “So do I.”
Let’s face it, so does everybody. What works best is that “Blackbird” acknowledges the messiness of its situation and doesn’t try to tidy it up (other than making everyone rich and beautiful). If Lily was hoping the whole family would come together and give her one last peaceful weekend, she is decidedly out of luck. If family members were hoping they’d leave their architecturally significant manse having made peace with the decisions made in its luxury, that doesn’t happen, either. There’s a lot of pain in store for everyone, which feels right.
The characters have figured out a few things by the end of “Blackbird,” but it concludes on a note of confused finality, which is probably how a drama about grief should end.