Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Cast: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges, Gretchen Mol, C.J. Wilson
Runtime: 2 hrs 18 mins
Rating: NC16 (Coarse Language and Some Sexual References)
Released By: UIP
Official Website: http://manchesterbytheseathemovie.com
Opening Day: 16 February 2017
Synopsis: Manchester by the Sea tells the story of the Chandler family, a working class family from Massachusetts. After Lee’s (Casey Affleck) older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) suddenly passes away, he is made the legal guardian of his nephew (Lucas Hedges). Lee is forced to deal with a tragic past that separated him from his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and the community where he was born and raised.
Next to ‘La La Land’, ‘Manchester by the Sea’ is probably the odds-on favourite to win Best Picture of the Year, with its leading man Casey Affleck tipped to finally get that Best Actor recognition after no less impressive turns in ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Great Robert Ford’ and ‘Gone Baby Gone’. As grounded as the former is flamboyant, Kenneth Lonergan’s masterful third film as writer and director is a sobering – but never sombre or solemn – portrait of grief, death and coping, built around Affleck’s wounded and brooding Lee Chandler, who is summoned back from Boston to his Massachusetts seaside hometown of Manchester by the Sea following the death of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler). Lee accepts the news stoically, but it is clear that he is tamping something down, and over the course of the next two-and-a half hours, we will learn of Joe’s former demons while he struggles to come to terms with the fact that he’s been made sole guardian of Joe’s only teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) whom he has not seen for some years now.
It should be said from the onset that ‘Manchester’ offers few grand, sweeping moments; rather, Lonergan eschews the Hollywood playbook in favour of honest, sincere and authentic minutiae. While waiting for the ground to thaw so that they can bury Joe, Lee has to decide whether to stay in Manchester which Patrick clearly favours or move back to Boston which he prefers but make Patrick re-locate in the process. That same decision weighs on Patrick too – given that he will be physically separated from his two girlfriends – so in addition to arguing with Lee over the impending move, he even reaches out to his estranged mother Elise (Gretchen Mol) to see if she would take him in instead. In between the days waiting for spring, Lee and Patrick navigate their newfound relationship, the former making the decisions around Joe’s house (like whether Patrick gets to bring his friends over) and taking care of Patrick as Joe would (like driving Patrick to and fro one of his girlfriend’s place). It isn’t drama for dramatic sake Lonergan that is after, but seemingly simple and mundane events that add up to a nuanced understanding of these characters as well as their dynamics.
At first, ‘Manchester’s’ narrative structure may seem slightly jarring, cutting between the present and the past to show their intersections. The opening scene of Lee clowning around with Joe and a much younger Patrick on board the family fishing boat, the Claudia Marie, follows with a montage of scenes showing Lee in his present situation as a janitor/ handyman in a suburban Boston housing suburb. An early scene of Lee staying over at Joe’s place sits right next to another showing Joe and Patrick coming home to find Elise passed out naked on the sofa. And perhaps most significantly, a procedural meeting with Joe’s appointed attorney administering his will sees Lee relive the horrible memory of what happened to his now ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and three children which led him to leave Manchester-by-the-sea in the first place. Yet there is method to the juxtaposition of the then versus the here and now, the former ultimately enhancing the heft of the latter.
Lonergan’s genius is as much in his intimate depiction of his characters as it is in his fine observation about the nature of life itself. Without giving away what happened to Lee, it suffices to say that not all tragedy comes with the eventual consolation of closure; instead, there are some forms of tragedy that cut so deep we can never hope to recover completely from it at all, so much so that the only way that a person can function again in life is to try to avoid being reminded of it altogether. It is such a pain that Lee carries with him, which is behind his present monastic existence and his outbursts at random strangers after a few beers. It is also that pain which prevents Lee from reciprocating Randi’s attempt at reconciliation, and the same pain which prevents him from ever contemplating a future in Manchester-by-the-sea again. Not often are such difficult emotions presented onscreen without the gratification of resolution at the end, but Lonergan tackles it head-on with an excellent cast that represents one of the best ensemble efforts this year.
Deserving of all that awards-season recognition so far is Affleck, who delivers a perfectly calibrated performance balanced between vulnerability and mettle. His Lee is a man who is adjusted but not necessarily recovered, and Affleck’s tough yet tender portrayal cuts right to the depth of his immense anguish. Most of the action revolves around Lee’s custody of Patrick, and the 20-year-old Hedges is warm and lively as the latter who tries to get on with his life – rocking out with his teen band (amusingly named ‘The Stentorians’) and attempting to get it on with one of his girlfriends behind her intrusive mother’s back – while dealing with the loss of his father and reconnecting with his uncle. Together, Affleck and Hedges give the movie its emotional core, while small but memorable turns by Williams and Chandler further illuminate the humanity and woundedness of these characters as they come to grips with their past and present circumstances and each other.
Much praise has been heaped on ‘Manchester by the Sea’ since its Sundance debut one year ago, and it is indeed worthy of all that accolade. Like we said earlier, this isn’t a film built on big moments, but on the day-to-day, perhaps even insignificant, ones that speak to a bigger picture of overcoming loss, coping with tragedy and finding a way forward. As bleak as that may sound, Lonergan cleverly weaves truly wrenching sequences with welcome sparks of levity, demonstrating yet again that he is one of the most perceptive writer-directors at work today. Oh yes, this is the comeback Lonergan deserves after the ignominy of ‘Margaret’ (which went through a torturous production process before being released in a butchered studio cut) as well as that breakout film for Affleck who has long deserved to be recognised as a leading man in his own right. Don’t go in expecting to be blown away; let ‘Manchester’ work its power on you slowly, subtly but surely, and you’ll come to understand why this is truly an emotional tour-de-force.
(An emotional tour-de-force, this portrait of overcoming loss, coping with tragedy and finding a way forward in life is keenly observed and beautifully acted)
Review by Gabriel Chong