MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Kenneth Lonergan

Stars: Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Kyle CHandler, Tate Donovan, Gretchen Mol, Matthew Broderick, Stephen Henderson.

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Manchester By The Sea is writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s first film since Margaret, his troubled 2005 drama that was shelved for several years while embroiled in legal disputes. But his latest film marks a welcome return as this moving drama about grief and redemption has become one of the highly-favoured films in the lead up to the annual awards season. Lonergan delves into the pain of ordinary people with sensitivity and insight.

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) works as a janitor in a Boston tenement block. But he is surly, gruff and rude to the tenants, which lands him in trouble with his employer (Stephen Henderson, who can also be seen in the drama Fences). He is a solitary and seemingly damaged and deeply troubled figure. Then he receives a phone call telling him that his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has been hospitalised following a serious heart attack. He heads off on the long drive back to his hometown, which he left five years earlier. But by the time Lee arrives in the coastal fishing town of Manchester By The Sea, Joe has died.

Lee is charged with tidying up his brother’s estate. He temporarily moves into Joe’s house while he puts affairs in order. But he is also surprised to learn that Joe has appointed him legal guardian of his teenaged son Patrick (Lucas Hedges, from Moonrise Kingdom, etc). Joe was reluctant to let his former wife, the unstable and alcoholic Elise (Gretchen Mol) be responsible for Patrick’s upbringing. Lee is reluctant to uproot himself from Boston to move back to his hometown, which holds bad memories. Lee is forced to confront some of the ghosts of his past though, especially in an emotionally charged encounter with his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams).

But Lee needs to find a solution to secure his nephew’s future before he can move on. For his part though, Patrick would prefer to stay home, and bury his grief through music, his band and sex.

The extended flashbacks reveal the cause of Lee’s anger and his reluctance to return to his hometown, and they slowly tease out details that explain why Lee is this way. Editor Jennifer Lame (Reservation Road, etc) seamlessly moves between the flashbacks and the scenes set in the present day.

Lonergan creates well-rounded and recogniseable characters with whom audiences can empathise. This rather down beat exploration of love, loss, pain, and the grieving process boasts a career best performance from Affleck, who has already established a resume full of strong performances in fine independent films. Affleck captures Lee’s wounded nature with a restrained and taciturn performance, and he channels his bottled-up anger, rage and grief and guilt. He eyes convey a lot of unsaid emotions as well. There is a great, prickly chemistry at work in those scenes between the wounded Affleck and Hedges, and their contrasting personalities shape many scenes. Hedges holds his own with Affleck with their verbal sparring. Michelle Williams is great in a small support role as Lee’s ex-wife Randi, a role that lets her explore a great range of emotions despite only having about ten minutes of screen time.

Manchester By The Sea is a visually stunning film. Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes (Trainwreck, etc) immerses us into the sleepy rhythms and beauty of this seaside fishing town. She captures the beautiful scenery, and conveys the coldness of the snowbound wintry location, which effectively seems to reflect Lee’s grief and his emotional state. Lonergan often works with long steady takes, and his slow deliberate pacing creates a distinct mood. This is not a film for fans of fast paced action. Lonergan also works in close-up quite often, which also allows us to share the characters’ pain.

The film is moving and evokes a strong emotional response without ever becoming overtly manipulative. It will also remind audiences of Robert Redford’s Oscar winning 1980 drama Ordinary People, which was also an insightful and intelligent drama looking at themes of grief, loss and how people cope in the aftermath of a tragedy. But the film’s downbeat nature is also leavened with some black humour and touches of mordant humour.

Manchester By The Sea is only Lonergan’s third film as a director, but this may well be his masterpiece.

★★★☆

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