manchester by the sea

review by ken donnelly

Kenneth Lonergan’s first feature since 2011 is an unabashed triumph. It is a picture which exudes tragedy and frustration throughout but somehow manages to emerge as restoring and freeing. Lonergan’s talent as a filmmaker shines throughout to create an enduring piece of cinema.

Manchester by the Sea is the story of Lee Chandler, a Boston handyman struggling with personal anguish, who learns of the death of his brother. Lee must then come to terms with the reality that his brother has made him the sole guardian of his son and Lee’s nephew Patrick. Set predominantly in the small seaside town of Manchester, MA, the film becomes the tale of the growing relationship between Lee and his sixteen year-old nephew. It is a film seething with immense tragedy and heartbreak, leading much of their interaction to be tinged with an inevitable sense of futility.

The way in which the characters are constructed is one of the film's great successes. Lonergan reveals the characters and how they live their lives, before slowly feeding us information as to how they got to where they are. Hints are dropped regarding mystery and infamy surrounding Lee in his hometown of Manchester and what follows is the slow unwinding of the truth behind his character. The pacing of the film and its careful use of flashbacks allow for an intensely personal discovery of the characters on screen. If the film had moved along any faster, the character and relationship development would not have been so effective.

Manchester by the Sea is a film about people and how they cope with immense grief. Throughout the film there is recognition between the characters of the failure of words and language in communicating their grief. Lee and Patrick are both subject to a painful suppression of emotion as they persistently fall short in their attempts to deal with a tragic past. The most emotional scenes of the film are marred by characters struggling to articulate their feelings of helplessness. From this struggle comes a surprising amount of comedy. In spite of the great sadness that runs throughout every scene, a great amount of humour is derived from the characters inability to effectively communicate with one another. From this tragic humour shines an abundance of humanity.

A particularly eye-catching aspect of the film is its wealth of wonderfully framed shots. There is an emphasis on characters being a part of their surroundings and not dominating them. It is not a film dominated by long action packed scenes but rather short scenes filled with subtlety and precision. Shots as simple as Lee putting a piece of pizza in the microwave or digging snow outside his house become poignant and relevant to the wider picture as a result of this meticulous framing. The film seems to be beset by a constant winter which echoes the characters woe in a form of pathetic fallacy. Persistent images of snow and allusions to freezing and thawing further the cold and difficult tone.

As the title suggests, the sea plays a key part in the film. The sea becomes a place of solace and comfort for Lee and Patrick, whose family have seemingly spent generations going out on fishing boats. Wide expansive shots of the boat against the sea and sky create some of the few instances of calm in the film.

The score varies between haunting harmonic choral music and a magnificent selection of classical pieces, brilliantly interweaving parts of Handel’s Messiah with original compositions for strings. The result is a score that enhances the film and excellently contributes to the tense and sombre atmosphere.

Casey Affleck as Lee provides an astonishingly effective and nuanced performance. At no point does he over-dramatise the character nor does he undermine the tragic predicament he is in. It is a heartfelt portrayal of a man who can no longer find reasons to carry on. To his credit, it is the character which shines through and not the performance. A word must also be given to Lucas Hedges who plays Affleck’s nephew Patrick. Hedges is to be equally praised for his contribution to the development of the complex relationship between Lee and Patrick.

The film is aided by a number of wonderful performances by those playing peripheral characters. CJ Wilson as George, Lee’s brother’s old fishing mate, provides an excellent counter balance to the onslaught of despair while Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife Randi manages to portray honesty and genuine emotion in spite of her relatively small amount of scenes.

Manchester by the Sea is a deeply personal picture. Its meticulous judgement of grief and tragedy is second to none. While the film’s progression may at times feel a bit muddled, particularly in the second half, the overall atmosphere is not affected. While it might not be the most extravagant or flashy tale of Oscar season, it could well be the most honest. Unlike last year’s Massachusetts based Oscar winner, this is not a film that will fade away into obscurity. It is desolation brimming with humanity, and that makes it far too enduring.