Manchester By the Sea is to be released in the UK on the 13th January, and is already making its mark on award season and rightly so. This heartbreaking and often comedic look at the human condition is an exceptional cinematic experience that pulls at the heartstrings, without being soppy or contrived but by being honest and simple.
The film follows Lee Chandler’s return to his hometown of Manchester, New Hampshire following news of his brother’s death and causes his unresolved past to resurface. Casey Affleck is exceptional as Chandler, repressed, knee-deep in sadness, crippled by feelings of guilt and unable to relate to others. He has the occasional outburst, turning aggressive, erratic, and violent after a few drinks. It is behaviour that perhaps betrays the mask he hides behind.
The narrative has two parallel storylines that run through it - Lee’s present and his reflection upon the past. We see plot build up, as history slowly reveals itself to explain current tragic outcomes. It is through this interchange that we are introduced to various, significant characters, including Lee’s recently deceased older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), a kind (if a little dopey) ruggedly handsome man, a provider who looks after everyone. Through Lee’s flashbacks we see Joe being given the fatal prognosis, and a happy, outgoing Lee who is totally in love with his family. We catch a glimpse of this again as he starts to reinvest in the present world, with his new-found relationship with Patrick (Lucas Hedges).
Patrick is Joe’s teenage son and played brilliantly by newcomer Hedges. A hockey playing, sexually active kid who seems to have taken his dad’s death in his stride. Although, he does wish to reconnect with his mum Elise (Gretchen Mol), and her new devout Christian lifestyle and fiancé Jeffrey (Matthew Broderick). While that relationship may or not work out, the uncle and nephew bond continues to develop, as Lee decides to stick around for a while. However, when Lee discovers Joe has awarded him full custody of Patrick, Lee finds himself questioning whether he can commit to such a decision. This, he battles alongside his fraught relationship with his ex-wife Randi, played by Michelle Williams, and it is this relationship that holds the most a pain for Lee.
Visually, it is all rather bleak. The dreary winter, the monotony of landscapes, the constant snow and the grey muted skies over smoky still waters gives an isolating but striking feel to the whole thing. Director Lonergan uses long-shots of the beautiful open spaces to fill in the silent moments, and these are especially effective at the moments when Lee is unable to express himself. There is a plethora of scenes in the film, which appear quiet and understated but are loaded with unexpressed raw motion that is bursting to come to the surface.
It is truly an exceptional film, not so ground breaking or highly original but more that it is incredibly intimate, sad, funny, heartfelt with exceedingly strong lead performances. It offers so much that it is impossible for it to go unnoticed, and for a film largely about grief, it’s funny! Director Lonergan adds a comedic tone to the banal everyday moments as well as any awkward interactions which is somewhat surprising but needed.
While, Oscar buzz can create hype, sully a film’s reputation and increase viewer expectation, in the case of Manchester By the Sea the reaction is completely justified. It is an outstanding film.
Kenneth Lonergan's masterful film 'Manchester By The Sea'. A tragicomic look at loss and grief.