Lily (Susan Sarandon) and Paul (Sam Neill) have called their loved ones over for a very important occasion – Lily’s death.
Oldest daughter Jennifer (Kate Winslet) arrives first, early, with salt and pepper shakers, a gift she immediately questions, and regrets, but feels compelled to give anyway, and a cake she made from scratch, because that’s what she does. Husband Michael (Rainn Wilson) and son Jonathan (Anson Boon) trail in behind her, at a slight remove from her chipper wake. Younger daughter Anna (Mia Wasikowska) arrives late, of course, empty-handed and with meagre excuses for having missed the last several family gatherings. She’s accompanied by unexpected/uninvited Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus), her on-again/off-again girlfriend. Also on hand: Lily’s best friend and indeed lifelong family friend Liz (Lindsay Duncan). And that’s it. These are all the people Lily wants to say goodbye to before she takes her own life before an unnamed degenerative disease can do it for her, in a likely prolonged, painful, and undignified way.
Everyone knows of Lily’s intentions and everyone tries to put on a brave face despite their own personal feelings – for a while. Lily wants to revisit some old haunts, drink some good wine, host one last Christmas dinner (despite its not being Christmas), and give out some precious heirlooms while she’s still alive to see the recipient’s face. Lily is exceptionally happy to have this last time together, but she’s the only one who can truly enjoy it. Everyone else is just sort of grimly bearing it while having private breakdowns, until one wine-fueled dinner leads to all kinds of family secrets breaking open.
This movie isn’t going to win major awards or draw major box office. It’s a remake of the 2014 Danish film ‘Silent Heart’ which I have not seen. But despite it not being particularly ground-breaking or excellent film making, it is perhaps the single movie out of the 40 or so I saw at TIFF that I’ve thought about the most.
This family believes itself to be, prides itself on being, close-knit. And it might have gone on that way forever, untested, if not for this incredibly stressful time that they’re sharing. Surrounded by her family, Lily proclaims how proud she is of her daughters – a lovely sentiment that would normally be quite harmless, but in this pressure-cooker of a weekend, daughter Anna can’t help but wonder out loud if that can really be true if her mother’s really never known her. Not her true, inner self. And if you’re the introspective type of moviegoer, I suppose you can’t help but reflect on your own family situation. These people, who are supposed to know you and love you best, are often the source of the most conflict and pain. Your own mother, who made you and cooked you in her belly, who birthed you and bathed you and cared for you – does she know you? Do you hide any part of yourself from her? Are you comfortable knowing everything about her? Are any of us truly knowable by any other?
I confess, this movie sent me into a tailspin. And to be honest, that’s exactly what I love about going to the cinema. It’s the chance, albeit a pretty slim one, that I will leave the theatre thinking. Feeling. Questioning. Considering. I did not need a movie to remind me that my mother doesn’t truly know me, but it did leave me wondering what, if anything, I would reveal of myself if I knew her time was limited.
Lily is someone to each person at her table: wife, mother, best friend, grandma, in-law, trusted confidante, role model, judge. Everyone has something different to lose, and it’s figuring out exactly what that is that makes this process so difficult. Life is an equation. Lily feels her good days are up and craves the control to prevent too many bad ones. Anna feels she isn’t ready to lose her mother. Is anyone, ever? I think both sides of this equation are reasonable, but only one can prevail. These are the seminal relationships of our lives and we are born knowing that they will end. Are we ever really ready?
Susan Sarandon is self-assured and brave. Sam Neill is a stoic, steady silver fox. Kate Winslet is anxious and authoritative. Mia Wasikowska is wounded and fragile. They are not a perfect family, which is to say: they are a family. And they’re about to break.