At cinemas nationwide from Fri 13 Jan 2017
Kenneth Lonergan’s previous film Margaret was a sprawling opus that dragged itself out of a six year purgatory of development hell in 2011, to vocal critical acclaim but a collective shrug from the audience. After another lengthy hiatus he returns with a film that should ensure their undivided attention.
Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a man haunted by his past, who ekes out a living as a handyman in Boston. After his brother (Kyle Chandler) dies as a result of an acute heart condition, he returns to the small fishing town of Manchester for the funeral, only to discover his brother had made arrangements for him to become the legal guardian of his sixteen year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee feels not only incapable of dealing with a bereaved teenager, but it also brings him back into the environment of an event in his past so unspeakable that it’s caused his self-imposed isolation and exile from the community.
Affleck is extraordinary as Lee, underplaying his role to perfection as a man so eroded by grief that he often interacts with others purely as a means of inflicting further punishment on himself. Lonergan uses artful flashback to contrast this taciturn, empty vessel of a man with the often aggressively social and garrulous figure he used to be, as a friend, a father and a husband. To rub extra salt into the deep furrows of solitude, his ex-wife (Michelle Williams) has now remarried and is nearing the birth of a child.
Lee’s tentative steps back to society come through his relationship with his nephew. Patrick is a confident, abrasive teenager juggling two girlfriends, his school ice hockey team and an awful garage rock band. Their odd couple dynamic provides a rich source of wry humour as Lee plays chauffeur and attempts to connect with a young man who seems to have eased into bereavement with the minimum of fuss
What makes Manchester by the Sea such an extraordinary work is the investment created in the characters. It’s not so much about healing, as the potential to heal. Each infinitesimal step towards understanding and acceptance for Lee feels like a small victory, which Lonergan depicts with a steadfast adherence to the maxim of show don’t tell. It’s a rough emotional maelstrom of a film, for all its studied lack of melodrama. Its eviscerating, human acuity is as sharp and bracing as the freezing Massachusetts air that permeates almost every frame.
If Manchester by the Sea isn’t a contender when awards season really kicks in, it will be down to its subtlety and refusal to provide an easy, uplifting resolution. No matter, for if there’s a better film released in the UK this year, it’ll have to be astonishing.