Manchester by the Sea
Death, heartbreak and the mundane absurdity of everyday life: this, in short, is the subject matter of Kenneth Lonergan’s deeply moving feature, Manchester by the Sea. If this makes it sound like heavy, emotionally wrought stuff, that’s because it is. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a reticent janitor, who riles the people he works for by day and picks fights in bars by night. One day, he receives a call telling him his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has had a heart attack, which proves fatal. Joe’s death leads the protagnoist to have to unexpectedly take on the role of guardian to Patrick, his teenage nephew in Manchester, New England. Lee’s past holds a horrifically tragic event, which we learn of through a series of well-placed flashbacks, and it’s a past that won’t allow him peace. His relationship with Patrick (Lucas Hedges) forms the backbone of the narrative, and as they both try to continue with life after Joe’s death, the dull unrelenting pain of grief and how one continues in the face of tragedy are given a masterful exploration.
Casey Affleck’s Lee is an opaque character with an impenetrable stare, who oscillates between calm numbness and explosive anger. It is a truly magnificent performance, as Affleck manages to portray his character’s anguish and despair whilst maintaining the wall between himself and the rest of the world – he’s dead inside and burning with pain at the same time. There are moments when one yearns for the ice to break, for the cathartic scene where he lets it all out, but it doesn’t come. For some, this may strike as a fault in the script, but arguably, it is this refusal to give the audience the emotional release they want that makes the film stand apart.
It isn’t all despair and suffering, though. The relationship between Lee and his nephew, who has two girlfriends and is pretty happy about it, brings some brilliant comic relief to the movie, sometimes darkly comic, sometimes plain innocent, and is crucial to portraying the surreal task of carrying on normally when life-changing events occur. Hedges, as Patrick, brings a superbly nuanced performance, and Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife gives an intensely emotional one.
Manchester by the Sea is a tremendous piece of cinema. The cinematography is beautiful and bleak, much like the story itself. However, Lonergan is not out to depress his audience, but rather to shine a reflective light on tragedy and the absurdity of carrying on from it. This is a film that deserves all the praise it receives.
Manchester by the Sea is released nationwide on 13th January 2017.
Watch the trailer for Manchester by the Sea here: