Manchester by The Sea

UK Release Date 13th January 2017
Director Kenneth Lonergan
Starring Affleck (not that one) Williams HEDGES
Runtime 137 minutes
Certificate 15
Reviewer Jo
Reviewed 6th January 2017

2016 will always be remembered as the year the whole world went mad but also 2016 was a year imbued with grief. Grief for those lost (starting with Bowie ending with George) grief for another, less complicated time, grief for loss of common sense. And so on. It is an examination of grief, and its many forms, that administers the core of writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s third film - the agonising, amusing and affecting Manchester By The Sea

I fell in love with Kenneth Lonergan through the wonderful You Can Count On Me (If you haven’t seen it you really should) but although set in a similar snowy, small town, tonally Manchester by The Sea is a world apart. Lee Chandler is a handyman for four buildings in a small town in Boston. Monosyllabic, rude and brutally honest Lee certainly isn’t hired for his charms. After telling one stuck up resident (deservedly) to fuck off he is pulled before his boss where he is quick to point out he works four buildings for minimum wage and does illegal work, he isn’t apologising to anyone. You gotta admire the guy. Lee lives in a basement flat, starts fights at bars, shuns the most obvious of female flirtations. None of the above however can distract from the emotional jail Lee himself has built. In short Lee is the walking dead. A phone call suddenly shakes Lee into action with the news that his beloved older brother, Joe, has died.  Joe had a congenital heart condition so this isn’t a surprise but still a brutal shock. Lee handles this with is usual Asperger’s-esque reaction, whilst Joe’s oldest friend George is in tears at the hospital, Lee shoves his hands deeply into his pockets rather than let the nurse hold his hand.

Joe’s 17-year-old son Paddy is now left without a guardian and in an unexpected twist (most unexpected to Lee himself) Joe appoints Lee his guardian. This is a role Lee neither wants nor, more importantly, sees he is fit for, the self-loathing he has himself so often misinterpreted as arrogance or rudeness. As Lee wanders aimlessly around Manchester we hear whispers of ‘the Lee Chandler’ so we know that something buried in the past is a public matter and most likely the event that buried his emotion so deep inside that the chance of resurrection seems impossible. Forced together, Paddy and Joe begin a strained but truthful and often funny relationship as they navigate their own personal minefields of grief. 

Manchester By The Sea begins in standard narrative then Lonergan jumps around the timeline and gives the audience hints as to what it is that has stripped Lee Chandler so entirely of emotion. In her poem Parliament Hill Fields, Sylvia Plath wrote  ‘your absence is inconspicuous, nobody can tell what I lack’. That line could have been written for Lee Chandler. When that terrible scene revealing just what the hell happened to Lee finally comes be ready to have more tissues than that time you watched Breaking The Waves, Iris AND Requiem For a Dream in one sitting. However, Manchester by The Sea is more than one outpouring of grief. There is an abundance of humour and so much intelligent and compelling thought threaded throughout the narrative that I was enraptured, it’s been a while since I have been so wholly entranced by something on the big screen. Lonergan makes jokes where they are completely inappropriate and his characters say awful things sometimes but you realise if that joke wasn’t there the darkness would envelop you and is simply a mirror to the way many humans handle grief. Lonergan intersperses the drama with almost standalone vignettes of locals or people in their apartments whilst Lee is fixing something. It’s a strange almost jarring experience at first, like being poked with a stick by a toddler whilst trying to concentrate on a Shakespeare play but all told it works to great effect. Those vignettes, those peppers of humour, even the soundtrack shake everything up constantly so unlike Lee, we are not sliding into despair. Light will prevail, even in the most absurd of ways. 

Casey Affleck is in his element in this role as blue collar Lee. It’s similar to roles he has played before but that is not to belittle his performance for that is so complete, complicated and raw that it is beautiful. Affleck has the perfect foil in young Lucas Hedges who is simply brilliant. Lonergan has gifted the young actor in that instead of playing a teenager who is forlorn and broken he a libidinous, licentious charming and talented young man so full of life that Lee is like a zombie next to him. Paddy does in fact ask Lee more than once if he is brain damaged. Paddy’s bravado is strong, that is until the grief eventually catches up with him in a scene that left me bereft of tears. It is a career making turn and I look forward to seeing what Hedges does next. Kyle Chandler is wonderful as Joe, his size and natural charm and warmth meaning that the big brother shaped hole that Lee has resonates even more. The three men are perfect casting. 

There are actually some women in this film, honestly! Namely the great Michelle Williams who has probably around 10 minutes of screen time but boy does she make them count. Williams has this great skill of embodying characters like she has swallowed them whole and donned their skin, she does exactly that here. It is a performance of great depth and raw emotion and every time she is on the screen she is frankly the only thing your eyes care about. Gretchen Mol is also great as Paddy’s drunken AWOL mother who doesn’t have too many scenes but shines when she does.

And we simply go without commenting on the brilliant cameo by long-time collaborator of Lonergan Matthew Broderick; playing a creepy born again Christian in one unforgettable scene. What a guy. 

In Short:

Stephen Hawking once said ‘life would be tragic if it weren’t funny’, and that sums up Manchester by The Sea. Lonergan doesn’t sugar coat anything for the audience but he doesn’t leave us bereft, drifting in an ocean of despair either. There is no chance of a typical Hollywood happy ending but he will provide a hopeful one. If you’re looking for a film that will nicely tie everything up then I’m afraid this is not it. The type of grief Lonergan is showing, that Lee goes through, is so overwhelming, it is a tsunami that destroys everything in its path. Some grief and its circumstances are so insurmountable they will stay with that person forever no matter what they do, no matter where they are, like their own shadow. As Lee says to Paddy ‘I just can’t beat it’. 

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