Manchester by the Sea – Film Review
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
Writer: Kenneth Lonergan
Starring Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges
Review by David Turpin
Kenneth Lonergan’s third feature, Manchester By the Sea, is more compact than its sprawling 2011 predecessor Margaret, but equally weighty in theme. That it has already been rapturously received in the US suggests a significant uptick in Lonergan’s fortunes, Margaret having famously languished for half a decade between completion and release. In fact, the film has been all-but hailed as the confirmation of a new American master. It isn’t quite that, but it is a committed and self-possessed piece of filmmaking, the work of a writer-director who addresses universal themes (in this case loss and death) with a singular touch.
The film deals with a profoundly depressed man, Lee (Affleck), who is called away from his job as a janitor to take care of his nephew, Patrick (Hedges), after the death of his brother (Chandler, seen in flashbacks). In returning to the eponymous Massachusetts town, Lee also returns to the site of a terrible tragedy that left him alienated not only from his ex-wife, Randi (Williams), but also, effectively, from life itself.
The film is, at heart, a serious-minded consideration of the effects of bereavement. Juxtaposing the shattered Lee with Patrick – who, at least on the surface, responds to his father’s death with a certain pragmatism – Lonergan presents, in a sympathetic but tough-minded fashion, the idea of insurmountable loss. Manchester By the Sea is emphatically not a film about a man “recovering” from tragedy. Rather it is a film about how Lee negotiates his inability to recover. On those terms, it’s interesting to set Lonergan’s film next to the misbegotten Will Smith grief-uplight yarn Collateral Beauty, which has arrived in cinemas around the same time (and mercifully departed swiftly thereafter). Set against the ersatz “healing” of so many cinematic narratives of loss, Lonergan’s suggestion that certain losses do not lead to eventual life lessons, but rather lessen life, seems positively radical.
Of course, one of the reasons why narratives of “healing” are so beloved by formulaic scriptwriters is that healing implies change. By contrast, Lee is a character who is defined by stasis. He is desolate at the beginning of the film, and there is never any question of him digging himself out of the hole he is in. Rather, we watch him find incremental ways in which to manage living in a hole. If that sounds depressing, it needn’t be – and Manchester By the Sea is often a surprisingly amusing film (although a cameo by Matthew Broderick as a sanctimonious suburbanite feels rather broad in the context).
Affleck, who is currently favourite to scoop the Best Actor Oscar for this performance, commits fully to the character’s anger, stasis and shame. It’s a good performance, certainly, but it’s not a great one. At times the strenuousness of Alleck’s feat of capital-A acting seems to assert itself over the strain under which Lee himself is living. Hughes, as his counterpart, is a lighter presence, but his performance is arguably more nuanced. Williams is affecting in her handful of scenes.
Throughout, Lonergan manages the unusual feat of registering as a distinctive authorial voice, while presenting something that at least feels akin to how real people speak and act. The one concession to outright artifice is the soundtrack, which includes a handsome score by Lesley Barber, as well as a number of classical selections which confer a certain sense of circumstance on the otherwise humble milieu (although the use of Albinoni and Giazotto’s Adagio in G Minor is uncharacteristically on-the-nose).