Another Look at ‘Manchester By The Sea’

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James Bartlett takes a another look at Manchester By The Sea

Already festooned with praise and award nominations – expect it to feature heavily at the Oscars this month – the third project from writer/director Lonergan starts with the lonely life of hard-working janitor Lee (Casey Affleck), who one day gets a phone call with bad news.

The story unfolds with regular flashbacks showing how Lee and his older, more handsome and seemingly-successful brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) have related over the last few years: you’re soon wondering why Lee moved away and seemed to hide, and why he seems so unmoved when he rushes to Joe’s hospital bedside to find he’s arrived too late.

There’s a shock in store for Lee too, as Joe’s will gives him the family fishing boat and makes him guardian of teenager Patrick (Lucas Hedges), a nephew who barely remembers his “Uncle Lee”, and, more than that, seems numbed to the death of his father.

Dragged back temporarily to his childhood home town, it’s inevitable that Lee finally runs into his remarried and pregnant ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams), and it’s clear there’s something unspoken between them.

As Lee tiptoes round Patrick and struggles to deal with the funeral and all the sudden responsibilities he now has, the memories start to flood back more and more and while Lee and Patrick inch towards compromise and understanding, the unhappier times come into focus again.

As you can probably guess, this is an occasionally harrowing family drama that casts a wide and deep net into the lives of the characters. As the contrast between the relatively happy moments of the past – and the uncertainty of everyone’s future – finally comes to a head, we’re compulsively dragged along as we wonder: what’s going to happen to this family?

Appropriately set in a freezing seaside town, this intense film is again another strong narrative from Lonergan (who appears briefly, bundled up in blue parka jacket, as a nosy passer-by).

Co-writer on Gangs of New York, Analyze This and (ahem) The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle, he’s still better known (or he was, until this film), for his 2000 writing/directing effort You Can Count on Me – another strong, compelling drama about a long-lost brother who suddenly reappears.

It was hard to keep a lump from your throat watching that film, and there are moments here too – notably from Williams in her one proper scene – and especially from Affleck, who bundles up his emotions completely throughout that, when it happens, makes you feel everything.

Keep an eye out for the bearded CJ Wilson as George, Joe’s best friend who isn’t afraid to show his kindness – and his feelings – despite being a rough-and-tough fisherman, and it’s also true that Hedges more than holds his own against Affleck.

Their snappy arguments and to-and-fros are a highlight, and offer some rare humour too, but that pivotal scene from Affleck won’t be in any clip or trailer, so you’ll really have to go and see Manchester by the Sea for yourself.

Casey may be the less famous of his siblings, but he’s the better actor, and it would be foolish to bet against him taking Oscar home this year.

 

 

 

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Review: Manchester by the Sea

Manchester-by-the-Sea

DIR: Kenneth Lonergan • WRI: Martin Scorsese, Jay Cocks • PRO: Lauren Beck, Matt Damon, Chris Moore, Kevin J. Walsh • DOP: Jody Lee Lipes • ED: Jennifer Lame • DES: Ruth De Jong • MUS: Lesley Barber • CAST: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler

 

 

Manchester by the Sea does not pretend to offer any easy answers; indeed, one of the film’s strongest aspects is its refusal to sentimentalise the aftermath of trauma. Redemption can’t be found in the warm embrace of family or seeking self-betterment – not here, anyway. A quiet, thoughtful film meditating on the question of loss and those death leaves behind, director Kenneth Lonergan delivers a deeply humane portrayal of grief and those who choose to let it define them.

Janitor Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) leads an isolated life, unplugging drains, shovelling snow, fixing faucets, disposing of old furniture, swearing at tenants, and getting into fights at bars. After the death of his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), from congenital heart disease, Lee is shocked to find himself named the guardian of his sixteen-year-old nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Forced to confront the family and hometown he had fled following an unspeakable tragedy, Lee struggles to find his place in a world he is not yet ready to fully re-enter. Locals whisper rumours behind his back and his ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams), has moved on with her life, while he remains stubbornly static in his grief. Patrick poses as his uncle’s antithesis, handling the loss of his father by hanging out with friends, practicing with his basement band, playing on his school’s sports team and dating girls. Whereas Patrick embraces life in response to death, Lee merely seeks out a different kind of death. They each are all the other has left but, despite both their desire to reach a place of mutual understanding, catharsis lays just beyond their reach.

The film is beautifully shot, utilising its seaside town setting to combine the thematic and visual in a manner that is complimentary rather than contrived. The harsh winter is not just pathetic fallacy, it has real, tangible effects on the characters’ lives, from their lack of suitable clothing to the small matter of frozen ground preventing the burial of the dearly departed. The town of Manchester-by-the-sea may look quaint, but its inhabitants have grit. The film’s score, on the other hand, suffers from Lonergan’s overreliance on it to convey emotion, oversaturating scenes with orchestration when silence would have been more effective. At best it’s mildly annoying, at worst it’s hugely distracting. The film also has some pacing problems. The final thirty minutes or so simply feel like a rehash of the prior hour and a half, failing to stick the landing in a way that would do justice to the earlier parts of the film.

All the cast deliver strong performances, in particular Affleck and Hedges. Lee’s withdrawn manner and terse dialogue tell of an unspoken horror. His demons not only haunt him, he invites them in, languishing with them in his perpetual self-hatred. When the source of this pain is eventually revealed to the audience, the character’s actions and attitude are suddenly understandable, if not acceptable. Affleck plays this role well, perhaps too well. At times Lee’s unwillingness to engage with those around him creates a stilted experience for the audience, in the character’s own words he just ‘can’t break it’ and he holds back the audience along with him. Michelle Williams has been garnering praise for her performance, which is perhaps why it came across as rather a let-down. Not only is her screen time quite limited, her performance, though solid, is hardly a stretch for an actress with such a strong cinematic resume. In a year that was thin on the ground for good female roles, however, can anyone blame reviewers for grasping at straws?

Overall, Manchester by the Sea is a moving film that refuses to compromise its unflinching examination of unrelenting grief to pander to its ‘feel-good’ counterparts. You won’t leave the cinema feeling happy, but you will leave having felt something profound.

Ellen Murray

137 minutes
15A (See IFCO for details)

Manchester by the Sea is released 13th January 2017

Manchester by the Sea  – Official Website

 

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