ScreenCritics Adam takes a look at the critical darling of late-2016 – the much admired ‘Manchester by the Sea’. Is it as good as critics think?
So earlier this week, we kicked off what I like to know as the grief trilogy by reviewing A Monster Calls. If you can’t be bothered to go back and read it, and for shame I thought I did a good job on that one, I thought it was a brilliant depiction of a boy being angry at the world for the hand it has dealt to him. But now we must move onto the second part of the trilogy which is the Oscar nominated Manchester by the Sea which aims to be even more realistic than A Monster Calls. As in it doesn’t have a giant talking tree in it.
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James) is summoned back to his home town of Manchester when his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler, The Wolf of Wall Street) passes away. However he is shocked to find out that one of his brother’s last acts was to make sure he got the guardianship of his son Patrick (Lucas Hedges, Moonrise Kingdom).
We are going to compare the grief of Manchester by the Sea to A Monster Calls a lot, mainly because the grief surrounds a similar sort of character and they were released very close to each other. Then we’ll compare both to Collateral Beuaty when I get to that one, and we’ll probably end up vomiting. Unlike A Monster Calls, the grief in Manchester by the Sea is more understated. Instead of the anger that flows through the talking tree film, there’s a sort of acceptance that flows through the one that actually won an Oscar. The characters are obviously depressed and upset, possibly even pushing those emotions down, but there’s a feeling that everyone knew this was coming. It’s quite an interesting way to tackle this tricky subject, with our two main characters of Lee and Patrick being more frustrated with what to do after he dies rather than frustrated with the death to begin with.
That’s not to say the film just motors through the grief so they can get to the real drama, which is of course what to do with their boat. The film isn’t just about the immediate aftermath of grief, but the lasting impact it has over years and there’s good use of flashbacks to show this. We see the marriage between Lee and ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams, Shutter Island) and I can’t really go into that much because of spoilers, but it explains why Lee doesn’t live in Manchester and it leads to the most powerful scene of the movie, which is an acting powerhouse from both Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams. It’s what got Affleck the Oscar anyway.
But look, I can talk about the film’s depiction of grief all day but the film does not focus on that for it’s run time and more about the relationship between Lee and his nephew Patrick. And this is the deal breaker for me. These two are meant to have a pained relationship, due to what has happened to both people. However scenes with them both together feel awkward in a bad way and share no chemistry. Both Affleck and Lucas Hedges are doing a lot of good acting, but you never get a feel that both have a genuine connection which we are meant to believe in by the end. This is the emotional crux the film is leading on, and it didn’t work for me.
And also, I want to talk about the character of Patrick a little bit. He is very well-played by Lucas Hedges who is indeed a rising star, but the person himself is very unsympathetic. In fact if his dad hadn’t just died, I’d say you’d damn right hate this person. For large parts of the film, he seems not to care about anyone but himself, he has two girlfriends and the film bizarrely never seems to suggest he is bad because for this. In fact this a pro for his character, he positively boasts about it to Lee who really should cut him down on this rather than going along with it. For someone we’re meant to care about, the film doesn’t half write him as a bastard.
Now me not liking this maybe because the film had put me in a bad mood earlier on with one of the most misfitting scores I have ever heard. The film really needs a lot of quiet with a subtle score so the emotion of the scene can settle in and allow the actors to do what they think, but for a lot of the film there is an incredibly overwrought score which just doesn’t fit with the rest of the film. It sounds more like a classical theme from something like Gone with the Wind rather than a low budget emotional drama, and it’s just too distracting. It lessens the hard work being done by the actors on screen and is the worst part of this film.
I’m not suggesting that Manchester by the Sea is a bad film. It has some great performances with some properly powerhouse scenes, especially when Lee and Randi meet each other after so long apart. But the film struggles to be as good as it should be because of a lack of chemistry between the two leads, a deeply unlikable character we are meant to care for and a score which should be in a different film. The impact of some scenes are lessened because of this and it is testament to the performances in the film that some work at all. A huge shame because this could have been truly stunning.