There are worse ways to die.
Not to minimize Lily’s fate. She has ALS and her body is starting to betray her. Rather than spend her final months hooked up to tubes, unable to even feed herself, Lily has invited the extended family to her Architectural Digest-friendly home in the Hamptons — and once the weekend is over, her husband, who just happens to be a very successful doctor, will administer a concoction that will put Lily to sleep, never to wake up again.
As I said: Worse ways to die, right?
This is the setup for Roger Michell’s keep-the-box-of-tissues-close, family melodrama “Blackbird,” a remake of the Danish film “Silent Heart.” It’s a great-looking film, from the autumnal beauty of the exteriors (with the South Coast of England doubling for the Hamptons) to the exquisite set design of Lily’s home to the Ralph Lauren catalog-style outfits worn by this WASP-y family. The material can get awfully sudsy and we can see a couple of the big reveals coming two scenes in advance, but on balance this is a well-written, moving story bolstered by an outstanding cast.
Fifty years — FIFTY YEARS — after making a memorable screen debut in “Joe,” the majestic Susan Sarandon is still at the top of her game as Lily, who has lived a long and rich life, from her activism to her marriage to a loving husband Paul (Sam Neill) to her two grown two daughters, Jennifer (Kate Winslet) and Anna (Mia Wasikowska). Lily’s illness has reached the stage where it’s a struggle for her to get out of bed in the morning, navigate the stairs, hold a glass of wine in her hand. As the family members start to arrive for this final weekend, she’s more certain than ever the time has come to end it. (Yes, euthanasia is illegal, and there’s a scene where Paul explains exactly how the crime will be carried out, in a way that shouldn’t arouse suspicion. Hmmm. He might need a lawyer, just in case.)
Jennifer, the oldest daughter, arrives with her cheerfully nerdy husband Michael (Rainn Wilson), who loves to spout fun facts nobody cares about, and their teenage son Jonathan (Anson Boon), who’s brooding and distant because, well, he’s a teenager. They’re soon followed by Anna and her girlfriend Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus). Rounding out the group: Lindsay Duncan’s Liz, who has been best friends with Lily since college and is so close to the family she’s in nearly every vacation photo through the years. It’s almost … suspicious how close Liz is to Lily. Or is it Paul?
Control-freak, judgmental Jennifer can’t believe the irresponsible Anna — who has battled addiction and has gone off the family grid for months — showed up with Chris. I thought that was over, she says. Are you even sure you’re a lesbian? One can practically see the fireworks sure to explode at some point over this long weekend.
Lily decrees they should hold Christmas even though it’s a month away, so a tree is procured and a lavish meal is prepared. When Lily hands out specially selected gifts to each guest at the dinner table, it’s waterworks time. But despite Lily’s stated wish for a “normal” weekend, free of drama, things start to unravel when one of the sisters plots to call 911 and thwart the suicide, and the other happens upon a moment that throws her world upside down. Before it’s over, everyone in this fine cast gets a showcase moment to display some serious acting chops.
This is Sarandon’s movie and she deftly handles the moments of light humor as well as the inevitable heavy scenes. Everyone in the supporting cast is terrific, but the standout is Mia Wasikowska, playing what could have been a clichéd character — the rebellious, overlooked, troubled younger sister — and turning Anna into a sometimes maddening, sometimes heartbreaking, complex character whose life could still go either way after this game-changing weekend. We know Paul’s going to be all right even though he’ll have to carry on without the love of his life; we know Jennifer is going to be all right because she won’t allow anything less. We hope Anna finds her way.