Blackbird: Only Waiting for This Moment, by David Bax
Over the course of his career, director Roger Michell has been responsible for beloved rom-coms (Notting Hill), sturdy melodramas (The Mother), absolute misfires (Hyde Park on Hudson) and at least one underrated gem (Enduring Love). Despite some misses, his reliable craftsmanship and facility with actors was enough to get me intrigued for Blackbird (especially with its impressive cast). It was even enough for me to dismiss any worries brought on by the movie’s presentation card for Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment. And, for a good while, those decisions seemed to have been right. But, by the end of the movie, the self-help brand’s reputation for performative sentimentality won out.
Susan Sarandon is Lily, the matriarch of a well-off family that, despite her own seemingly happy marriage to Paul (Sam Neill), operates in various stages of dysfunctionality. Lily is terminally ill and has decided to gather her grown children and their own families for one last weekend together while she is still able. Older daughter Jennifer (Kate Winslet) arrives first with her husband Michael (Rainn Wilson) and their son Jonathan (Anson Boon), followed by longtime family friend Liz (Lindsay Duncan) and then finally, with the requisite tardiness of any cinematic black sheep, younger daughter Anna (Mia Wasikowska) shows up with her girlfriend Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus).
Christian Torpe’s screenplay–adapted from his own script for Bille August’s 2014 Danish film Silent Heart–starts out patiently, with long scenes that breathe. In these moments, Blackbird seems to understand that cracks in families tend to reveal themselves more in strained niceties than in full blown fights.
Similarly, the production design of Lily and Paul’s home tells us plenty about them. I mean, of course, it tells us that they’re rich. But it also has the just-cleaned appearance of someone expecting company. Once again, we see a family defined by etiquette, accustomed to surviving by saying all the polite things and none of the uncomfortable ones.
That all changes around the dinner table in one of Blackbird‘s many scenes that feel like little plays (in the middle of a movie that often feels like one big play). The dialogue is an actor’s delights and even the first few obvious turns are forgivable in the hands of such a talented cast. Slowly, though, things turn from theatrical to downright histrionic.
Melodrama is a respectable subgenre of storytelling. But as the secrets that spill become more predictable and the reactions to them turn into rote sturm und drang, Blackbird loses its grasp on its measured, character-driven early self and becomes a by-the-numbers tearjerker that’s too obvious to actually jerk any tears.