Review – Manchester by the Sea (2016)
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler
Over the decades the movies have provided us with many inspirational stories about people overcoming obstacles, about people rising to the occasion when the situation demands it. But sometimes people don’t, or rather they can’t. Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, his third film as writer-director, tells the story of such a character. It is a gut-wrenching exploration of family tragedy and a complex study of the way that grief and guilt can cripple a life.
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a handyman in Boston. There is something about him that strikes us the moment we meet him. It is as though he is an empty shell. He is a loner, emotionally closed off from the world. When Lee’s brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies from a heart attack, the result of an ongoing condition, he has to head up to Manchester to make arrangements and look after his brother’s affairs. Returning to his home town, we get the sense that there is a story we don’t know about. Lee seems to have a certain notoriety. The Lee Chandler is back in town. To his shock, Lee discovers that he has been appointed guardian to his sixteen-year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee is torn between his strong sense of duty to his brother and his belief that he is utterly ill-equipped to take on such a responsibility. Patrick has no interest in moving to Boston with his uncle. He has a life in Manchester: friends, a rock band, a hockey team, two girlfriends. And while there is nothing in particular that draws Lee back to Boston, there is something which means he simply cannot stay in Manchester.
The combination of Lonergan’s screenplay and Jennifer Lame’s editing gives Manchester by the Sea a really compelling structure. The narrative jumps back and forth in time without clear signposting. It is a film which asks you to go with it for a while. It gives you scenes and snapshots, pieces of information, which give you emotions and tones and which you must trust will come together to paint a full picture later in the piece. So we are introduced to Joe as a character after we hear of his death. We see the strong bond between the two brothers, in particular the way Joe has looked after Lee in the past which spurs on Lee’s sense of duty towards Patrick in the present. We see both brothers have complicated failed marriages, Joe with Patrick’s mother Elise (Gretchen Mol) who is driven to the bottle by his medical condition, and Lee with Randi (Michelle Williams), whose love for each other is not powerful enough to keep them together. Importantly, as the story progresses, these flashbacks (it feels crude to call them that) give us incrementally more of the information about Lee’s past that we are seeking, and reinforce the failings responsible for his present day sense of inadequacy.
In the central role – and he is in practically every scene – Casey Affleck delivers a mighty performance. It is the best work of his career and it isn’t diffucult to see why he is the front runner to take home the Best Actor Oscar in a few days time. It is a powerfully emotional performance that is made all the more impressive by how internalised it is. At no point does he get that big boil over scene, the kind of scene that gets played at award shows, where everything comes out. Rather, it all stays inside. Lee is a character in emotional agony, struggling to keep it at bay. He is broken. In his mind he is beyond redemption. He tries to keep people, and his past, at a distance and is now thrust into a situation where he has no choice but to interact with both. With every interaction we see the wheels turning. We see him trying. But Affleck doesn’t achieve this alone. His scene partners feed into his performance. His scenes with young Lucas Hedges beautifully capture the awkward dynamic of the new guardian-child relationship, as Patrick looks to Lee immediately for boundaries, permission and approval. His scenes with Michelle Williams (who also earned an Oscar nomination), while only short, are particularly gut-wrenching.
Manchester by the Sea is an Amazon Studios production. So outside of the film itself, it is also a significant step for the brave new world that is the 21st century film industry. Unlike Netflix’s original films, including prestige releases like Beasts of No Nation, Amazon has chosen a traditional theatrical release for the film before distributing it through their service. It is the first film from a streaming service to land an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, demonstrating the growing acceptance of this new industrial model.
Beautifully shot by Jody Lee Lipes and with an affecting score from composer Lesley Barber and music supervisor Linda Cohen which uses classical music to add a sense of grandeur to the story, Manchester by the Sea is not just another emotional family melodrama. With its strong performances and blending of tonalities that reflects the mish-mash of real life, it ends up being something much more complex and interesting.
Review by Duncan McLean
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