With Manchester By The Sea, Kenneth Lonergan has made something almost immaculate. A close examination of the all encompassing effect of grief, without presenting any solution to it or making a completely passive victim out of anyone involved, as far too many ‘weepy’ films often do (here’s looking at you, Me Before You). It’s also surprisingly funny – with more laughs than many films marketed as comedies this year.
Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, who at first appears to us as a plain, quiet janitor from Boston with a less-than-friendly disposition. Affleck puts in an outstanding performance, expertly keeping pace with the film as it switches between quiet sadness and frustration, to comedic frustration at the drop of a hat; swinging between hilariously and painfully unsociable. Lee is a character who, at first glance, should be completely unlikeable – but Affleck imbues him with plenty of charisma, his exasperation and frustration often resulting in surprisingly comical outbursts during arguments with friends and family.
Following the death of his brother, the film quickly shifts location from shoddy apartment blocks in Boston to Manchester by the Sea in Massachusetts, a peaceful, colourful fishing village that soon becomes imbued with an air of sadness. The film is rife with uncertainty, with Lee’s emotions towards others appearing numb at best, hostile and angry at worst. What we see in the character is almost entirely shaped by context, his at first comical prickliness transformed into something much more heartbreaking as his past is made clear.
The film isn’t just a showcase for Lonergan’s excellent, authentic dialogue – it’s also beautifully made. While the direction may not be the most exciting in terms of movement and imagery, the editing and pacing is absolutely perfect; timed to perfection in every circumstance, and seamlessly integrating flashback into the main narrative as Lee deals with the aftermath of a death in the family. It’s more about coping than fixing anything, as Lee struggles not to break entirely throughout the course of the film under the weight of his loss and his newfound responsibilities. Even the soundtrack sounds like something someone would put on to calm down.
Manchester By The Sea is a tragedy of painful and epic proportions told extremely well, without pretension, but not without humour. Avoiding the grandiose melodrama of many films that are released in ‘Oscar season’, Lonergan expertly handles dialogue and cinematic technique to create a moving study of grief and depression that doesn’t patronize the audience or beat you over the head with the misery of it all. The dialogue is expert and naturalistic, never becoming overly grandiose even when confronting unfathomable loss. The film simply just is, and while it isn’t meandering, there isn’t a clear endpoint in sight as the film fights on. In the same class as films like Louder Than Bombs, it’s a character study first – and a deeply cinematic, affecting and a shockingly funny and charming one at that.
Dir: Kenneth Lonergan
Writer: Kenneth Lonergan
Cast: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Gretchen Mol and Lucas Hedges
Prod: Kimberly Steward, Lauren Beck, Matt Damon, Chris Moore, Kevin J. Wals
DOP: Jody Lee Lipes
Music: Lesley Barber
Editing: Jennifer Lame
Country: United States
Running time: 135 minutes