Review: Manchester by the Sea

Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By the Sea, which had its UK premiere at the London Film Festival on Saturday night, is his mere third outing as a director. And his tertiary effort might just be his most mature, melancholic and majestic work yet. A story about a working-class Massachusetts family, to whom fate has not been kind, and the ubiquity of grief, Manchester By the Sea is the kind of subdued, sobering experience that doesn’t lend itself to mainstream attention. But seek it out and you’ll discover something of wrenching power and quiet, arresting beauty.

Casey Affleck, building upon a roster of roles he’s tackled with a tortured intensity, (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Gone Baby Gone) is Lee Chandler, a man whom life has chewed up and spat out and whom when we meet him is barely existing. Alternately abrasive and aloof, Lee is a competent if uncongenial handyman for 4 apartment buildings in Boston. Between the bar where he instigates fights with strangers to the one-bed squat where he falls asleep in front of the TV, beer in hand, there’s a sense of deadening routine which scarcely manages to distract from the deep-seated troubles which appear to plague our protagonist.

On a morning like any other, snow shovel looming mid-air, Lee receives a call that obliges his return to the humble New England hometown he vacated a few years previous. His affable, and well-liked older brother Joe (played by real-life Chandler, Kyle) has died of a cardiac arrest and bestowed guardianship of his 16-year-old son Patrick (a vibrant Lucas Hedges) upon a reluctant Lee. This abrupt, though not altogether unforeseen bereavement, forces Lee to confront a place and a past sheltering an unspeakable tragedy that splintered the community, and continues to reverberate amid these tight-knit people.

Seek it out and you’ll discover something of wrenching power and quiet, arresting beauty.

Lonergan, the eloquent mind and steady hand behind the handsomely-mounted, character-driven dramas You Can Count On Me and Margaret, continues to demonstrate an ear poetically attuned to the nuances of quotidian speech and the inadequacies of it in communicating our emotions. Manchester By the Sea is a richly textured tapestry of awkward moments, strained interactions and everyday encounters, coursing with authenticity and elevated by the electrifying humanism with which they are depicted.

As Lee drags Patrick through the requisite funereal proceedings, their interactions are at once endearing, comedic and searingly sad. Affleck and Hedges possess a chemistry that surpasses some of the most memorable romantic duos, their heated back and forth enlivening the morbid circumstances with pacy, familial rhythms. Both are desperate to get back to their fragile normalities. For Patrick this involves hockey and band practices, dating two girls at the same time and looking after his father’s boat. For Lee, that’s recoiling to his stony, siloed existence in Boston as quickly as arrangements dictate. Both must negotiate the ripples that this event has on their futures.

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As such, this story toes a familiar line, but with a seldom-seen ability to capture a smorgasbord of human emotion. Moments of wrenching poignancy are punctuated with a tart, caustic humour; from a freezer-induced meltdown to a bungled attempt at lovemaking, you’ll find the laughter catches in your throat as tears roll down your cheeks. As Lonergan invokes this melting pot of love, frustration, anguish, hilarity and clumsiness, he deftly eschews cliche and melodrama, instead leaving incisive, elegiac impressions, as his characters amble their way through the mire, clashing and compromising and composing themselves as well as they can.

Casey Affleck is given the lead role he deserves in Lee Chandler, and hits every grief-stricken note with painstaking aplomb.

Lonergan and his director of photography Jody Lee Lipes (who has done phenomenal work on indie movies such a Martha, Marcy, May Marlene and the underrated Bluebird), do a sensational job of capturing the stillness and sameness of the landscape. Lensed with a crisp elegance, the harsh winters and choppy waters are beautifully rendered, giving sense to a place and a people frozen in time. Less effective is the sound design, which sometimes threatens to overpower; especially when the other elements are so subtle and restrained.

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Still, it’s easy to forgive when the film is otherwise utterly engrossing. Lonergan continues to excel at coaxing naturalistic and heart-breaking performances from his actors. Casey Affleck is given the lead role he deserves in Lee Chandler, and hits every grief-stricken note with painstaking aplomb. Lucas Hedges, meanwhile, is a quick-witted and wilful screen presence, nailing the self-centred braggadocio of a popular teenager but with an impressive charm and sensitivity. Kyle Chandler is reliably rugged and paternal as the pillar of the Chandler family – it’s a talented actor who can really make you feel their absence when their death occurs before they’ve even appeared on the screen. Speaking of minimal scenes, Michelle Williams also gives a shattering performance in her all-too-brief role as Lee’s ex-wife Randi; effusing the kind of verisimilitude for which she was praised in Blue Valentine, and which should hopefully garner her supporting actress nominations come awards season.

Manchester By the Sea could be accused of dealing audiences an unsatisfactory ending, but it works in the context of a film that resounds with a muted ache and authenticity. I can’t stop thinking about it – in the way that all films possessed of this much wisdom, warmth and woe – leave you reeling and feeling fortunate to have seen it.

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