Directed by Kenneth Lonergan Starring Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Gretchen Mol Film Review by Kieran Freemantle
Since premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, Manchester by the Sea has been one of 2016's biggest critical hits and a major awards contender for good reason.
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a Boston-based janitor with poor social skills and anger issues. After his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies from a heart attack, Lee heads to his hometown Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts to take care of his teenage nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), arrange the funeral, and face the demons from his own past.
Manchester by the Sea is primarily an actor's film; the performers are given hefty material to work with and writer/director Kenneth Lonergan simply lets the actors do their thing: he does not distract with fancy camera or editing tricks. Affleck has been winning a lot of plaudits for his performance and he is deserving of it - having a meaty role as a man who is unable to process his emotions and being distant from everyone - when women try to flirt with him he just stands there stony-faced. As Lee, Affleck has to face his responsibilities when he is named as Patrick's guardian - having an almost laissez-faire approach to having to become a more friendly and assertive figure.
Before the tragic event that drove Lee away from Manchester, he shows that there was warmth in his heart but it was drained away from him. Along with Patrick, Lee has to do deal with his own grief, but is less well-adjusted than his nephew. Patrick was more prepared for his father's death and had a support network of friends and two girlfriends; Lee has the weight of being a parent, having to handle the finances and care and deal with his own personal issues. Lee and Patrick also have different needs - Lee wants to leave Manchester whilst Patrick wants to stay and Lee tries to accommodate this as much as possible.
Affleck does have an excellent cast supporting him. He shares most of his screen-time with Hedges, showing he is a talented actor at his young age. Michelle Williams had the other emotionally heavy role as Lee's ex-wife - who also suffered from the same tragedy, but her reaction is more overwhelming hysteria compared to Lee's unhealthy approach of bottling up his feelings and letting it out in violent bursts. The rest of the cast were perfectly fine and natural in the roles - Kyle Chandler and Gretchen Mol being the most notable as Lee's brother and Patrick's absent mother.
Earlier this year I reviewed the Jake Gyllenhaal film Demolition about a man unable to process his grief - so ending up smashing up his home and forming a friendship with a single mother and troubled teenaged son. It was a film I hated because the main character was absolutely unsympathetic - despite what happened to him. Whilst Manchester by the Sea looks at similar themes and has a similar set-up, it has much better writing. Lee and Patrick can be pretty unlikeable themselves but they acted and reacted like real people, making them compelling. Demolition just wanted to be an "indie" film - it started with the line 'everything is a metaphor' which is a warning sign that the writer thinks too much of themselves. Lonergan's focus was on realism – both the psychological aspect regarding its characters and the dialogue that is spoken. Even when there is a humorous moment it is relatable like the bickering between Lee and Patrick, and Patrick's attempts to bed one of his girlfriends. There are also great little details about the community like people talking about the incident and how some of them react to Lee.
Lonergan made sure that he got the most dramatic capital from his film. He used lots of long takes which allows the actors to perform uninterrupted and many times Manchester by the Sea had a voyeuristic quality to it. Occasionally there is a slow camera movement or zoom to highlight a scene; and Lonergan knows that a facial expression can say as much as words. The static camera was effective when Lee flares up and fights since he does it without much warning. This is especially true of the second fight. I will admit I am a sucker for this style of direction.
The use of classical music also added to an emotional drama using tracks featuring violins, organs and choirs throughout the film. The acting, writing, direction and music all culminate to a peak during the flashback scene in the film revealing what the tragic event was. It was a pitch-perfect moment.
Manchester by the Sea was a slowly paced film which is to be expected from this type of drama. However, the film has a running time of 147 minutes it is bum numbing and stretches the material thin at times. Similar dramas are usually shorter and Manchester by the Sea would have perhaps benefited from being just two hours long.
Manchester by the Sea is deserving most of the positive critical reception even if some film critics were a little too enthusiastic. It is a master class in acting and screenwriting but it is on the long side.
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