Today: February 29, 2024

Manchester By The Sea

Writer director Kenneth Lonergan, who won an Oscar for his Manchester By The Sea screenplay, is clearly a man fascinated with grief and trauma. All of his three directorial efforts, starting with You Can Count On Me, Margaret and Manchester, deal with people struggling to comes to terms with events out of their control but that have impacted them in ways they cannot fully comprehend or accept.

This is especially true of Manchester By The Sea. On the surface the film tells the story of Lee (Casey Affleck) returning to his hometown after the death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) and is confronted with the responsibility of having to become the legal guardian of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges).

But behind the key narrative, which is wonderfully engaging thanks to the chemistry between Affleck and Hedges, is a driving force to address the trauma Lee has been living with for the last few years. Because, via flashbacks, we begin to learn why many of the townsfolk look at Lee with anger and disdain and why he is no longer with his wife Randi (Michelle Williams).

Lonergan’s direction is deft, quiet and often languid. But what is crucial is the way he conveys the titular town. Manchester By The Sea, on the surface, is postcard picturesque. All bobbing boats and tranquil existence. But it’s cold, Lonergan often cutting to images of the sea looking anything but inviting, grey, and miserable. It’s in these moments, moments that many filmmakers would simply use as transitions, that Manchester By The Sea really gets you. It lets you know the trauma on display runs deep, runs rough and that for all involved makes for a choppy ride ahead.

As the story gradually unfolds so the trauma we experience with Lee esculates. In Affleck’s hands he is a wonderfully tortured soul. A man living in his own personal purgatory. At one point in the film’s development producer Matt Damon was all set to play Lee. Due to scheduling conflicts he bowed and it is to the film’s benefit. It’s not that Affleck is a better actor than Damon, but Damon is a nice guy, one of those stars it’s easy to love, whatever he might be doing on screen. Affleck meanwhile always comes across as a man slightly on the edge. It’s this persona that brings a tragic and heartbreaking truth to Lee’s story. Affleck’s performance is wonderfully understated, rarely does he react, flinch or emote anything. And it is through this lack of caring that you fall for Lee. It’s not that he’s indifferent to the world, it’s that he’s a shell of a man who can never forgive himself for what has happened in his life and therefore certainly doesn’t want anyone else’s forgiveness.

Unlike his previous film Margaret Lonergan doesn’t make us bask in the melodrama and bleakness of this world. Yes, Lee’s world is tragic, yes, the town is a bleak place but from time to time there is a sense of comedic reality. Moments when the tiniest of interactions ring true with honesty.

A desperately heartbreaking tale that will have you weeping, smiling and most importantly hoping beyond all hope that there is a silver lining.

Alex Moss Editor

Alex Moss’ obsession with film began the moment he witnessed the Alien burst forth from John Hurt’s stomach. It was perhaps ill-advised to witness this aged 6 but much like the beast within Hurt, he became infected by a parasite called ‘Movies’. Rarely away from his computer or a big screen, as he muses on Cinematic Deities, Alex is “more machine now than man. His mind is twisted and evil”. Email: alex.moss@filmjuice.com

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