A journey from the depths of grief makes for devastating viewing in Kenneth Lonergan’s superbly acted drama MANCHESTER BY THE SEA.
Stories about grief are never easy to watch. And writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s devastating new drama MANCHESTER BY THE SEA certainly depicts one of the most tragic series of events that could happen to a person. But when you have a script as nuanced and sensitive as this, along with acting of the calibre you see here, it also makes for richly emotional and rewarding viewing – fully deserving of all the accolades that have come its way.
A great number of those accolades have centred on Casey Affleck. Playing the central character of Lee, this is a performance that when I was lucky enough to see the film at last year’s London Film Festival, I felt was a dead-cert for ‘Best Actor’ at the Oscars. It’s quite the most brilliant piece of acting you’ve seen in a long time. But it’s also the kind of performance that doesn’t necessarily win Oscars because it’s so beautifully understated and internalised.
And I think that’s been the hallmark of Affleck’s career. From his quirky brother role in the Ocean’s series of movies, to his softly-spoken detective in his brother Ben’s great directorial debut Gone Baby Gone, to his stand-out (and Oscar-nominated) turn in Andrew Dominik’s superb The Assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford, he makes everything so detailed and so restrained that you’re slowly drawn in and fascinated to know more about these characters. (And I hope he does win!)
Watching Lee in the early scenes of the movie, we see a truculent, solitary figure who lives a monotonous day to day existence as a janitor in Boston. Why is he like this? What has happened to make him this way? When he receives news that his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler in an ace cameo) has suddenly died and he needs to return to his former hometown of MANCHESTER BY THE SEA to be the guardian of his teenage nephew, Lee resists. But why? What could be so terrible to prevent him going back? When we discover the reason midway through the movie, it hits you right in the gut. It’s as horrifically tragic a moment as I can think of seeing in any recent film.
But out of tragedy, of course, there is always hope. In the relationship between Lee and his nephew Patrick (a star-in-the-making performance from young Lucas Hedges) we see an oh-so tentative journey towards some kind of connection. The core of the movie is watching these two men begin very slowly to articulate their feelings. To try and trust another person enough to reveal what’s going on inside of them. And it’s all the more riveting because like Jim Jarmusch’s fantastic movie Paterson, it’s all in the details and it’s all played so realistically.
Lonergan’s script focuses on how men deal with emotion and so the women are somewhat on the periphery but Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife Randi is incredible in only a handful of scenes and the terrific Gretchen Mol as Patrick’s wayward mother Elise also dominates the screen when she’s there. When they are on screen though, they certainly make their presence felt. Williams, in particular, has a wonderful raspy Massachusetts tone to her voice when she’s angry at Lee and his friends, disrupting her children’s sleep with their partying. And of course, she knocks the big emotional reunion scene with Affleck out of the park. In contrast to him keeping it all inside, tears stream down her face as she tries to explain how she feels – it’s another deservedly Oscar-nominated performance.
Kenneth Lonergan deserves all the praise that has come the film’s way. After arriving so illustriously with the wonderful You Can Count On Me in 2000, it took 11 years until his second movie Margaret appeared. Due to the mixed reception that received (unfairly I think – do see it, it’s great) and because small films about grief are possibly not the easiest to find finance, is why it’s taken another five years for MANCHESTER BY THE SEA to make it to our screens. It’s certainly been worth the wait and although, as I said, it’s not an easy watch, you’ll see that underneath the gorgeous cold, winter colours that make up the movie’s palette, there beats an emotional heart that will floor you.