The award season has rolled around again, and many of the films that garner attention are predisposed to the sentimental and emotive. The amount of drama releases, and their close proximity can often inoculate viewers against one of film’s greatest facets: its ability to connect on a deep personal level. Luckily there’s always a chance a film like Manchester by the Sea will come along and blow away all hints of cynicism; a brisk east-coast wind in the face of middling sentimentality.
Kenneth Lonergan’s third picture stars Casey Affleck on top terse and surly form as Lee Chandler, a loner who returns to his family home to look after his nephew, Patrick (rising star Lucas Hedge), upon the death of his brother (Kyle Chandler). His harried and whispered performance is the spine of the film, Affleck cultivates an oppressive sense of sadness that for the first half of the film feels vaguely misplaced.
The brilliance in Manchester by the Sea is how the setup is twisted by a flashback that gets under the skin in the style of Michael Haneke. As a few intercut scenes set to Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor flesh out his relationship with his ex-wife (Michelle Williams on incredible form) the whole film settles its disparate components into place. Lee’s inability to connect is explained, and it reveals new layers in the humorous, put-upon relationship with his nephew. When Lee apologies to Lucas, telling him that in the end, “I can’t beat it. I’m sorry.” the grief is palpable.
There’s a grim inevitability to the film that Lonergan contrasts eloquently with the constantly fluid nature of the sea, the winds that keep people hurriedly moving through Manchester’s quiet streets. The few violent outbursts he allows his characters create real friction between Lee and his carefree nephew, and Lonergan’s surgical deployment of a few snatched glances, and a brief encounter between two ex-lovers tells an effective and compelling story. Manchester by the Sea is on the surface a cold and rigorously constructed film that has a blazing heart and soul, and refuses to cash any of its integrity in for stab at bleeding-heart redemption.
[Luke Shaw – @FullofFeathers]