Flaccid family death-bed melodrama ‘Blackbird’ has a strong cast but is hobbled by a lack of believability and a giant story hole

All quiet, for now: Susan Sarandon plays a mother with a terminal illness in ‘Blackbird’.

BLACKBIRD *1/2 (98 minutes) M
Central to the passing of anybody with a terminal illness – or the passing of pretty much anybody, come to think of it – is the issue of dying with dignity.

It’s a resonant and important theme that runs through the heart of Roger Michell’s well-intended but overwrought death-bed drama.

With not long to live due to Lou Gehrig’s disease, Lily (Susan Sarandon) has decided to be the author of her own passing in her large beach-side home in the Hamptons, that storied part of New York state where the wealthy live and play.

In full support is Lily’s loving husband Paul (Sam Neill), a quiet and composed doctor who has acquired the potent potion needed for Lily to end things in peace and while she still has her faculties.

They know it’s against the law, at least where they live, but have wisely decided to proceed, thanks largely to a foolproof cover story that no amount of inquiry or investigation can puncture. It’s actually quite a brilliant set-up, complete with a large dose of Nixonian deniability.

Yet members of the family begin arriving, apparently invited for the weekend to be part of the ritual, their presence somehow deemed necessary, though it’s never explained why.

There are two daughters: the prim, happily married Jennifer (Kate Winslet, all-but-unrecognizable behind glasses and under a bob of brunette hair) and the firebrand Anna (Mia Wasikowska), who is gay and lost and angry at the world.

Others moving in for the big event include: Jennifer’s dull but affable husband Michael (Rainn Wilson from The Office in a neat dramatic turn); Lily’s best friend Liz (Lindsay Duncan); teenager Johnathan (Anson Boon) who, as the movie-teen trope dictates, quickly matures after an initial display of apathy; and Anna’s pal Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus), who doesn’t seem to have much to do but eat and watch.

So, there you have it. Lily has her perfect exit strategy all ready to go and is now surrounded by immediate family and various loved ones, all of whom are expected to go along with the pact without making a peep.

To employ a cliche much-loved by media commentators today – what could possibly go wrong?

Well, everything, of course.

Anna and Jennifer go at like two cats in a YouTube video: should Lily do it?; should she not do it?; should we stop her?; who has the right to interfere?; shouldn’t mum hang around longer to know her kids better?; etc, etc.

The morality of stopping Lily – a very ripe issue, indeed – gets some air, but not much, and certainly not enough to sustain the verbal punch-ups, which are clumsy, unconvincing and lack nuance.

A remake of the 2014 Danish film Silent Heart by Billie August and written by the same scribe Christian Torpe, Blackbird is a surprisingly torpid affair, especially given its high-powered cast.

Director Roger Michell – whose extensive CV includes: Changing Lanes; Notting Hill; Venus; Morning Glory; Hyde Park on Hudson; and My Cousin Rachel – struggles hard to breathe life into the piece.

But what voids the enterprise is one gaping story hole, namely: if you’re terminally ill and have a finely honed plan to do yourself in with the support of your devoted husband, well, why tell anyone, let alone invite your dysfunctional family up to witness it? Wouldn’t you keep it a secret?

It’s never explained why Lily and Paul feel the need to turn such an incredibly private arrangement into a public event, literally inviting their family in so they can poke their decision with a stick.

That really drains the film of any real emotional ballast. Sarandon, Neill and especially Winslet put in fine performances, but, unfortunately, they’re wasted in a melodramatic dirge that should have kept at least one eye on the importance of believability when engaging with such an important topic.