Manchester by the Sea might just break your heart
Is there a harder emotion for actors to portray than depression? Even the most acclaimed performances tend to be over-the-top, wailing to heaven above and unleashing floods of tears to show the audience how upset they are (see: Sean Penn in Mystic River, Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball). In Kenneth Lonergan’s incredible Manchester by the Sea, Casey Affleck delivers a performance of such restraint, such deeply-repressed trauma and barely-controlled rage, that it makes even the subtlest performances look excessive in comparison. As Lee Chandler, a Boston handyman with a dark secret, he gives one of the finest performances of his generation.
After spending years trapped in studio hell with the long-delayed Margaret, Lonergan is back with another emotionally-draining, humane and blackly funny character study. Opening with amusing scenes of Lee doing odd jobs for memorable minor characters and swearing at one of his tenants, Manchester by the Sea forces Lee to return to his titular hometown when he discovers that brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) is in the hospital after a cardiac arrest. Joe dies before Lee can get there, but not before naming Lee as the guardian to his son and Lee’s nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Whispered about by neighbours and haunted by past mistakes, Lee tries to do right to Patrick whilst struggling to control his destructive urges. Can this broken man recover?
Anyone who saw Margaret, or previous Oscar-nominee You Can Count On Me, knows that Kenneth Lonergan writes character and dialogue like no other working screenwriter. Manchester by the Sea may read as a weepie drama about grief, but that’s only one element of a film that acts as redemption story, odd-couple comedy, coming-of-age teen drama, and devastating romance. Though often brutally sad, there’s a rich vein of humour running throughout the film that could only come from someone as skilled as Lonergan; who else could stage a tense talk about funeral plans during an irritable search for a lost car?
Casey Affleck is the main draw, and potentially the film’s only winner come Oscar night, but the film features great performances across the board. In just a handful of scenes, the brilliant Michelle Williams nearly steals the show as Lee’s ex-wife, seen in flashbacks scolding at a roomful of drunken men for waking her up. As Lee’s most painful living memory, we only see her a few times in the present, but her conversation with Lee towards the end of the film is an extraordinary showcase for both actors – in their hands, it becomes almost unbearably moving. Though Williams is a veteran of terrific performances, 20-year-old Lucas Hedges is a revelation as Lee’s surprisingly-relaxed nephew. The rare movie teenager happy with life (he’s on the hockey team, plays in a band, and has two girlfriends!), Hedges is quippy and sharp even when vulnerable, and his dynamic with Affleck is as amusing as it is poignant.
In the same way Margaret was a sprawling three-hour film with at least two subplots too many, Manchester by the Sea is a little unkempt. Despite the 137-minute running time offering smaller details (like Patrick’s relationships with his friends and Lee’s job search) time to breathe, there are a few scenes that feel less necessary, like a distracting Matthew Broderick cameo late on the film. However, it’s worth having a couple of lesser scenes to allow the drama to unfold in such a measured manner.
Very few dramas hit quite as forcefully as Manchester by the Sea. Lonergan proves he’s more than just a writer with beautifully restrained direction, which rarely feels melodramatic or manipulative (even his controversial use of opera works in contrast with the very grounded story). Whether intercutting emotional dialogue with genuinely funny quips or staging dramatic scenes from a unique perspective, Lonergan constantly plays with dramatic conventions, capturing the truth of human emotion and grief in a realistically shambolic way. However, this is mostly an actor’s showcase. While Williams and Hedges are terrific, Casey Affleck is outstanding. Owning the most expressive eyes in Hollywood, he can sell happiness, sadness, and everything else with a single look. Affleck, and the rest of Manchester by the Sea, might just break your heart.
By Harry J. Ford
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