Manchester By The Sea
Director: Kenneth Lonergan.
Screenplay: Kenneth Lonergan.
Starring: Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Gretchen Mol, Matthew Broderick, Tate Donovan, Tom Kemp, Kara Hayward, C.J. Wilson, Anna Baryshnikov, Josh Hamilton.
“I said a lot of terrible things to you. My heart was broken, and I know yours is broken, too”
As Oscar season arrives, you can always expect a film to appear where it wants to throw its weight around and get its hands dirty by delivering a downbeat drama where the writing is empathetic and the actors can really show off their chops. Manchester By the Sea is that sombre type of Oscar bait film but to think of it as solely that, is to miss it’s true depth and beauty.
Plot: Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a Boston janitor who lives his life as a loner. One morning, he receives a phone call that his brother has died from a sudden heart attack. As a result, he returns to his hometown where he finds out that he’s been trusted with the guardianship of his 16-year-old nephew. Lee rejects the responsibility while being back home begins to unearth a dark and tragic secret that caused him to leave in the first place.
Kenneth Lonergan is a well respected playwright and screenwriter in the Hollywood circle but he’s actually directed less than a handful of films – three to be exact. His debut You Can Count on Me in 2000 was critically acclaimed and even managed a couple of Oscar nominations – including one for Lonergan’s screenplay. However, it took him years before he could get his next film completed. The film in question being the underrated and overlooked Margaret. It was finished in 2007 but didn’t get a release until 2011 due to lawsuits surrounding the final cut of the film. Such nonsense could have forced Lonergan to give up entirely and that’s exactly what concerned his friend Matt Damon. As result, Damon approached him with an idea that he and John Krasinski had come up with. The result was Manchester By the Sea. Sadly, Damon had to drop the lead due to prior commitments and the part went to Casey Affleck instead. In hindsight, he turns out to be perfect for the role.
Much of Affleck’s character is shrouded in mystery and that’s the driving force behind Lonergan’s screenplay. It’s the ambiguity and air of secrecy that holds your attention but throughout the earlier part of the film we are given snippets of information. When the revelation is actually made and it becomes clear why Lee is so reclusive and withdrawn, it’s absolutely devastating and changes the narrative and motivation of his character considerably.
For the most part, it’s a quietly affecting drama. It doesn’t play its hand too forcefully, instead relying on its moments of emotive power to develop naturally. It focuses on bringing dignity to the lives of everyday people and fully relates the heartache in looking grief and sorrow in the face and finding love and responsibility in their place.
Although it’s sounds depressing, Lonergan fills it with a lot of dry humour and the entire cast are excellent; Kyle Chandler only features in flashbacks but he brings a really strong paternal presence and, despite appearing high in the film credits, Michelle Williams actually features very little. Although you wouldn’t think so, such is the power of her performance in a few short scenes. Ultimately, though, this is Affleck’s film. I’d heard a lot of positivity surrounding his award winning work here and I have to admit that the praise is justified. The thing is, on the surface it doesn’t look like he’s doing very much at all but there are many subtle layers to his performance and to his understanding of this afflicted and tortured character. It’s a masterclass in understatement. He allows Lee to reveal himself naturally (and quietly). Much like his performance in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Affleck does very little yet says so much. It’s hard not to see him win an Oscar for this.
Manchester By the Sea is a slice of life where the characters are meticulously drawn and the small town itself plays a major role. It possesses real emotional depth and with a leisurely pace and a lengthy running time, it’s a big ask from Lonergan for you to invest in these people. But if you do, you’ll be paid dividends and he keeps good on that promise.
Trivia: Kenneth Lonergan makes a cameo as the Manchester Pedestrian who heckles Casey Affleck for being a bad parent.