Not far shy of a year-and-a-half ago, the film adaptation of the novel Brooklyn dropped into cinemas (at least here in the UK). The trailer for the film did it a total disservice presenting as an award baiting, over-the-top melodrama. A commercialized, factory made attempt at emotion, something I saw just a month later with The Danish Girl. However, Brooklyn was an understated masterpiece. One of clever subtleties and poignant complexities, that aroused emotions in you that when behind a quick cry near the end of the film. It was a film that stayed with you, a film that made you glad you went to the cinema and watched it. Manchester by the Sea is very much in the same vain.
Done a total disservice by the trailer. Critical acclaim is a terrific bellwether for those people who make the films. For all the skull crushing pressure they work under to deliver us stories that last longer than a lifetime. Nevertheless, cynically editing moments of the film and slapping quotes of critical praise all over can be alienating and off-putting. Cinemagoers are getting increasingly wise to “Oscarbait” to know it when they see it. In a perverse way, its seen films that have taken a deserved hammering clear up at the box office when they shouldn’t have done. Mr Bay and Mr Bruckheimer, I’m looking at you!
Manchester by the Sea is only the third feature film by Kenneth Lonergan, known predominantly for play writing and for writing credits on Analyze This and Gangs of New York. There is no question that Lonergan knows how to tell a good story. The question is, could Lonergan deliver that story to the big screen in a satisfying way? The last time he did was with the superb You Can Count on Me but that was over a decade and a half ago. Practically an ice age in our increasingly bats**t mental world.
Well Lonergan can and does. He delivers a stellar piece of work that reaps its strengths from its restrained nature. Personified by Casey Affleck. Affleck stars as Lee Chandler, a man working as a janitor in a Boston suburb who has deliberately withdrawn from the world due to a tremendous trauma that has clearly left him broken forced to return to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea after his brother’s death.
Affleck avoids doing the blank, crass grumpiness so often used to represent isolation in a character. Affleck is seemingly collected on the surface but via delicate mannerisms and brief gestures he demonstrates he is nothing more than a contained explosion. An explosion that escapes in brief, lonely moments from time-to-time. Affleck darts his eyes around the room, hunches his shoulders and often looks like a man crushed by the weight of the world.
In total contrast, we have Affleck’s portrayal of Lee’s character in the past before he left his hometown. Fast-talking, wise-cracking, boisterous and a little boorish. It’s a performance of total contrasts tied together in one sequence where we find out the root of his trauma. Affleck is making a big splash in awards season again.
Opposite him is Lucas Hedges as Lee’s nephew Patrick. Hedges also delivers a superb performance as a typical moody teen. Interested in his band and getting laid and has spot on comedic timing helping to provide some wry observations and great one liners to punctuate the grimness of the subject matter.
Lonergan’s direction is incredible. He creates drama and intrigue out of the mundane, simple things such as attempting to make idle chatter, walking around looking for a parked car or making a phone call. Often using fixed angle shots that linger longer than is comfortable but are tremendously effective in keeping you interested and generating empathy.
It isn’t quite as perfect as some critical acclaim makes it out to be though. Women are largely reduced to only slightly better than cameo roles in the film. This is not aided by the trailer which plays up Michelle Williams, as Lee’s ex-wife Randi, to have a greater role than she actually does. Reducing the female characters to props or mere development points for the men is disappointing and increasing Williams’ role would have made this film even more watchable than it was.
Manchester by the Sea is a superbly understated drama exploring isolation and depression. It may not provide the fulfilling answers or catharsis some of its audience might be looking for, but it is still a perfectly paced and relatable story and a strong vehicle for its lead performers.