Review: Manchester by the Sea

It’s Oscar season once again, and Manchester by the Sea is one of the big favourites. I liked it for its intimate view on the rigours of grief, and some good (not quite great) acting, but found it hard-going and a little slow.

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) lives alone in Boston as a janitor, and is called home to Manchester by the Sea after his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies of a heart attack. Having experienced a lot of trauma in the town, Lee is driven to escape, but is forced to stay with his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), and face his trauma alongside ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams).

I realise that synopsis might have made the film sound like a standard drama, but it’s not – it really is all about grief and how it shapes us. Consequently, it’s a hard watch, with the kitchen-sink realism of the Chandlers’ lives shown in real time and flashback, in all cases before and after a number of tragic events. Director and writer Kenneth Lonergan fills in those real-life gaps you didn’t know you hadn’t seen when we lose family members and carry on after, particularly the minutae and mundanity of funeral arrangements, wills and more. He also however, alongside his actors, does an excellent job of fronting up on the repressed sadness and outbursts (in whatever form they come) from those struggling to deal with death.

The cold and evocative winter in Massachusetts fits the tone like a glove, with Jody Lee Lipe’s cinematography painting everything in a muted hue that marries the town’s seaside location with the bitter winter and metaphorically with the characters’ grief and sadness. Everything feels and seems harsh for these people dealing with their losses, and Lonergan’s script cleverly ties in unannounced but seamless segues to the past at moments of high emotional pressure for Lee, as we get a sense of how he became the man he was. The movie ends abruptly with a lack of resolution, but then there was little hint throughout that the movie was going to fit to stereotypes of how a film plot should conclude.manchester

My problem with it all is that grief is its sole focus, and how it’s shaped Lee more than most – it makes the character hollow, and while you slowly warm to him and others (and stay lukewarm on some, such as his nephew), I struggle to see the point beyond becoming something to put in front of someone struggling with loss so they can cry it out and see the parallels. It feels too long at some points and a little like it’s dragging, and it’s emotionally stark, not emotional. I didn’t pick up on anyone finding it particularly upsetting in my screening, and it felt more like an endurance test to see how much you empathise with the characters as events go up and down. I will say though that there are welcome pockets of laugh-out-loud humour, which felt strange knowing this was a sort of emotional tour-de-force, but it’s a sensible move to try and give Lee and other characters some more humanity.

Affleck is the star and the main focus, and the actor is building quite a reputation as the proper “actor” compared to Ben, with justification. I thought his performance was very good, but nowhere near the hype around it – he’s best as this bubbling container of grief and misery, one which never truly explodes as you might expect. This withdrawn nature works both for and against him and the film, because while it’s supported by the horrible events he’s had to suffer, it also means we never truly warm to him because he warms to nobody else. I get that the point is he’s sad, grieving and basically in a rut of his own design, but your empathy only stretches so far, despite some welcome chinks in the armour towards the end. Perhaps this is Lonergan’s way of showing the audience that our expectations for a grieving character – to end up happier – aren’t always how life works.

Surprisingly for the high billing she has on the poster and everywhere else, Michelle Williams’ Randi appears in a minimal number of scenes. Despite this, her appearances allow the actress to show the other side of grief – the heart-rending, brutal and vocal explosions some suffer – making for an interesting counterpoint to Lee’s repression. Her integral position in the plot, especially with flashbacks, means that in my opinion she should have featured more, especially as her character marks the peak of Lee’s grief. Kyle Chandler features in a small and flashback-based role as Lee’s brother Joe, and paints in the backstory by showing how he differs to Lee, as well as how Lee relied upon him to deal with his previous losses.

Lucas Hedges, as Joe’s son Patrick and Lee’s nephew, has one of the larger roles surprisingly, and the younger actor takes a character that could have been a teen stereotype and subtly moulds it into something a little less conventional. It’s almost like Lonergan looked at the representation of teenage guys in other movies, and ported hokey elements (he’s in a band, he’s a “player” with the ladies) into a boy slowly coming to terms with what he’s lost. Again though, much like Lee, there’s a lot that is irredeemable about Patrick as a character, though I suppose that it’s part of how he defines Lee’s personality changes to serve the bigger story.

The supporting cast is normal and unremarkable enough, with the exception of Gretchen Mol and Matthew Broderick as Patrick’s former addict mum and Christian stepdad. The actoes barely have a chance to make an impression, particularly infuriating when their place in the narrative promises confrontation and delivers nothing.

The movie’s use of a lot of pre-released classical music threatens to become either schmaltzy or off-colour, specifically in one scene that should be played silently for its emotional power, and which much of the film hangs around. This overwrought classical piece feels like it’s parodying the events rather than complementing them, but aside from this, the soundtrack from Lesley Barber is affecting but slight, washing in and out like the boats at the port (apologies for that awful, strained comparison).

Manchester by the Sea is an affecting and emotional exploration of how grief touches everyone differently – and it’s reasonably well-acted. It’s a perfectly good film but it’s not particularly spectacular or life-changing – it tells us what we already know, that people deal with loss in very different ways.

2 thoughts on “Review: Manchester by the Sea

  1. Not seen the film but this was a really good review – nice exploration of a tone/state of mind and its limitations. I think a lot of films have these problems when they’re basically extended moodpieces.

    1. Thanks Chris – definitely agree. Makes it worse that some are marketed (or indeed review-marketed) to force people into thinking “I expect to cry”. What’s the point? With something like this it’s never going to be hot at the box office, so they may as well just describe it as a good human drama/exploration of grief.

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