Moving, funny, superbly crafted and performed, Manchester by the Sea is a worthy inclusion among the contenders for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars.
Manchester by the Sea takes its title from the coastal town in Massachusetts in which it is mostly set. It is also where a family tragedy occurred at the accidental hand of the lead character, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), who is so traumatised and guilt-ridden that he has relocated to Boston. He is emotionally shut down, a walking time bomb with a short wick working in a dead-end job as a janitor. When his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies suddenly, he is forced back to Manchester by the Sea to act as guardian of his 16 year old nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges).
It is winter – according to dramatic convention, the season of tragedy – and the ground is frozen. There can be no burial until the spring thaw. Hence, Joe’s body lies waiting in the morgue chiller. Lee, too, is in stasis, locked into a state of unresolved grief and rage that finds release only when he gets drunk and lashes out with his fists.
Despite Lee’s resentment at having to return to his home town to look after Patrick, by doing so he finds a way through his winter of discontent. This occurs partly through their gradual bonding. Often at loggerheads, the pair’s jibing at each other leavens an otherwise dark and brooding drama with some welcome humorous exchanges. While Patrick’s teenage lust for life (and a couple of girls he is two-timing) camouflages his grief at his father’s death, it eventually emerges that he is not coping, and Lee must think outside himself to lend support.
However, it is the town itself and the horror associated with it – and most importantly, contact with his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) – that confronts Lee with his demons. The dramatic and emotional peak of the film, in which Randi forgives Lee for his part in the devastating event that has torn them apart, features Williams at her potent best. She has a small role, but steals the show in this wrenching scene. By contrast, Affleck is left wanting – a minor slip-up in an otherwise great performance. Lee is supposed to be in a state of high emotion that reduces him to wordless mouthings, but the effect is OTT, an extended bout of self-consciously actorly off-tone mumblecore. It would have been consistent with the taciturn and unexpressed nature of the character for him to simply stand there mute and tortured as he tried to take in Randi’s anguished outpouring. But this is small bickies indeed in the larger scheme of things.
The screenplay is nothing short of masterful. Rich and complex, featuring brilliant characterisation and seamless exposition, it flits about all over the place chronologically, building up a narrative mosaic that throws out a challenge to the viewer but makes perfect sense as it comes together. Indeed, the coherence of the writing in all its intricate detail is fully appreciated only in retrospect. Everything matters, everything works, everything’s been rigorously thought out without seeming clinical (in fact, the sense of humanity at the core of the film is perhaps its primary strength).
But whatever the merit of the component parts, it’s the overall result that matters: Manchester by the Sea works superbly well on every level. It’s gripping, moving and funny, and a worthy inclusion on the Best Picture shortlist for this year’s Oscars. Don’t miss.
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