“Blackbird” introduces us to a family, gathered together at home with minimal contact with the outside world, as life-and-death health concerns inform every moment and each interaction.
Rather than a documentary about the way we’re all living these days, “Blackbird” (in select theaters and video-on-demand Friday) is a tender new drama starring Oscar winners Susan Sarandon and Kate Winslet. Shot nearly two years ago in the fall of 2018, it couldn’t feel more timely.
Sarandon stars as a matriarch, terminally ill with ALS, who has decided to end her own life and gathers her loved ones around her one final time.
With an ensemble featuring Winslet and Mia Wasikowska as her daughters, Sam Neill as her husband, and Rainn Wilson and Bex Taylor-Klaus as her children’s significant others, “Blackbird” is a testament to the power of family in our darkest hours.
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“The saddest or the most horrifying aspect of COVID is people dying alone, dropping your loved one off at the emergency room and not understanding that you may not see them again except to say goodbye on a cellphone,” Sarandon says. “When I hear those stories from people working in hospitals, it is heart-wrenching. And I think that it has sharpened our need to tell people that we love them and to be with them.”
Adapted by Danish screenwriter Christian Torpe from his 2014 film “Silent Heart” and directed by Roger Michell (1999’s “Notting Hill”), “Blackbird” provides a bracing look at how a diagnosis of ALS – amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease – effects an entire family.
“Any time that you’re telling a story where you can show a different point of view or let people experience what it’s like to be in a situation they haven’t been in, that’s what films are for,” Sarandon says. “For a second, you can glimpse and appreciate what people are going through.”
Since making her big screen debut 50 years ago in 1970’s “Joe” and winning an Academy Award in 1995 for her work in “Dead Man Walking,” Sarandon, 73, has worked to broaden viewers’ perspectives.
“I always hope that after every film that I make that people are encouraged to be the protagonist in their own life,” she says. “And that they can have a lunch or a dinner and disagree or agree and share perspective on something that they hadn’t thought of before. I just love that.”
“Blackbird” isn’t all devastation and impending loss; in the hour-and-a-half you spend with this family, Sarandon and company convey a remarkable amount of life, love and humor in the characters’ lived-in dynamics.
“You always need that, not only for the audience but for you,” Sarandon says. “In the beginning, you probably don’t like me very much. I was consciously not trying to be sympathetic.”
With a home near Chichester, England, near Winslet’s own, filling in for the Hamptons, and the cast all living just about 10 minutes away, Sarandon says a family atmosphere naturally developed on the set.
It’s a connection that endures today, with everyone keeping in touch via WhatsApp and having matching blackbird tattoos to remember the experience by.
“It felt like a safe environment to bring suggestions and to try to find ways to make them seem more and more like a family,” she says. “And we became like a family actually, living right next door to each other, going places together. It was an oddball family, definitely an oddball family.