With the past few years seeing English-speaking audiences become more and more receptive to foreign-language films, a very welcome side effect has been the decrease in America remakes of European or Asian movies. Alas, some still slip through, and most, from The Upside to After the Wedding to Downhill, are utter howlers. To this inglorious list we can unfortunately add Roger Michell’s Blackbird, a remake of Danish film Silent Heart that brings nothing new to the table while being bogged down in melodrama.
Blackbird opens with a family descending upon the home of matriarch Lily (Susan Sarandon) for what appears to be the least festive party of all time. Quickly, though, the solemnity is explained – Lily is in the late stages of a terminal illness and, with the aid of her doctor husband Paul (Sam Neill), she’s going to take her own life after one last family weekend. So, the stage is set for repressed sadness, the eruption of long-simmering resentments, and some hokey exchanges of wisdom between generations. It’s a premise that feels instantly overfamiliar, one in dire need of an incredibly witty script or powerful performances to make it worthwhile.
Sadly, these ingredients are lacking. Screenwriter Christian Torpe also wrote the original film, but it seems like something got lost in translation here. Relationships and histories feel underexplored, while the dialogue is flat, too many lines feeling self-consciously trailer-friendly, scrubbed of any real personality. For the first two thirds, Blackbird skates by on a warm and cosy atmosphere, and there are enough moments of sweetness to keep you on board. But this all comes crashing down in the last act, which lurches into ridiculous and frustrating histrionics, all building to a painfully predictable ending.
Though they are mostly coasting through the film, Sarandon and Neill make for decent leads, bringing a natural regality to their roles as parents and hosts. Lindsey Duncan is also on good form as one of the couple’s oldest friends, there to provide an emotional support that the rest of the family is incapable of, but the younger generation are disappointing. As elder daughter Jennifer, Kate Winslet is badly miscast, her attempts at a kind of pursed anguish mostly reading as bizarrely childish. Meanwhile Mia Wasikowska torpedoes the film every time she opens her mouth. Playing Winslet’s self-centred younger sister (there is zero familial chemistry between the two actresses), she has a horrible role and rises to meet it with an equally horrible performance.
There are some grace notes – surprisingly, Rainn Wilson really elevates his material as a typical Boring Husband, and Lily’s grandson Jonathan (Anson Boon) makes for a far more believable teenager than films like this generally offer – but Blackbird fails to find the spark it’s looking for. You’ll struggle to care about any of these characters, and the final scene is somehow both rushed and overwrought. Neither a frank enough in its look at mortality, nor clever or funny enough as a family dramedy, Blackbird never works out what it wants to be, and squanders its star-studded cast on a glorified actors’ workshop.