I watched Manchester By The Sea over a week ago. It’s taken me that long to have the capacity to review it. This is an emotionally draining piece of cinema that at times seems intent on drowning you in its melancholy. Directed by Kenneth Lonergan, the film has found critical acclaim online – but has also performed well with audiences.I find this somewhat confusing – as I can’t really say I enjoyed Manchester By The Sea. Instead, I was propelled through it as though I was peeping through the letterbox of someone’s house, watching their lives play out. The basic plot of the film sees an expert portrayal of grief from Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler, who starts the film as a kind of bitter loner who works as a janitor living in the city. However, news of his brother’s passing draws him back to the eponymous Manchester By The Sea, where he must confront old demons and care for his nephew, Patrick.
The film tells its tale through two narratives. One follows Lee as he tries to deal with his brother’s passing, not just emotionally but with all the trials and tribulations of death in the 21st century: funeral arrangements, storage of the body as the ground is too frozen for burial, the will etc. He also has to take Patrick under his wing – who is deftly acted by Lucas Hedges as a teenager with a whole ecosystem of life around him, unable to really confront what his father’s death means to him. He chases girls, plays in a band and gets on with things – but succumbs to bouts of grief as any human does.
The second narrative is in flashbacks, which reveal the reason people in Manchester whisper behind Lee’s back, “Is that THE Lee Chandler?” – and it’s here the real horror lies. I won’t go into detail, but the terrible secret that drove Lee Chandler away from his brother’s town and his own upbringing is one that’s incredibly sad, yet realistic and believable. In Casey Affleck’s performance, we go from disliking the character for his constant misery to suddenly pitying and understanding him. We also get to see the expertly acted Randi, played by Michelle Williams, who is Lee Chandler’s ex.
For me, this film is worth of it’s accolades chiefly because of the calibre of acting on display. There’s no real action or thrill – just the slow unfolding of an event and it’s repercussions in people’s lives. We see Lee struggling to try to do right by Patrick, a child he doesn’t really understand, whilst also wrestling with his desire to leave the area he grew up in. I found the film a little overlong, and dragging shots of the seaside scenery added little to the narrative. However, as a piece of realism it’s one of the most impressive achievements I’ve seen. There’s a constant feeling of grief – but it’s a restrained sort of grief, a kind you see in real life, rather than a Hollywood portrayal of sadness that never really captures the long, drawn out process of mourning for a loved one.
Casey Affleck is being praised heavily for this film, and it’s no surprise. He’s a terrific actor, especially when playing quiet misanthrope types. Here, he sells it completely as Lee Chandler, a man who doesn’t really want any of the things that come to him, but deals with them anyway. His relationship with his nephew may be strained, but they come together for one another. While it doesn’t work out in anything resembling an ideal scenario by the end, we understand. This is what life is like. Some wounds don’t heal. Some sadness’s never lift. But in the end, that’s alright. That’s life.
7/10 Bananas: With a meandering pace that stalls the narrative, this story plays out slowly and leaves you feeling drained. However, what there is to see is very much worth seeing. A masterclass in grief and human emotion.