I knew nothing about Manchester by the Sea when my friend booked seats and walked me to the rather beautiful Holloway Odeon to see it – except, that is, that Casey Affleck was talked of as a hot Oscar contender and that the critics raved about it. Yep, this is a film honed and promoted with the gong ceremonies firmly in mind, so in my mind it should be judged accordingly.
First disappointment to a Manchester lad is that it is not set in the real Manchester and on the Manchester ship canal, but in the eponymous quaint and charming fishing town in Massachusetts. Too bad, I can just imagine it performed in a Manky accent: “Eh up chuck, where’s tha bin?” OK, yes I’m joking.
Frankly, Manchester by the Sea is not the best of titles for Kenneth Lonnergan’s feted, brooding film. A good one might be “1001 ways of communicating badly” (also a joke), though the French have a better way of putting it. Indeed, there was a fine French film with this title: Un Coeur En Hiver, a wintry heart.
This is because the main theme is how characters, notably Affleck’s Lee Chandler – Boston janitor who fights in pubs after a few beers, deal with repeated grief and loss, to which the answer is clear: shut it out, shut down emotions and realities, say little, do less. Fighting his demons is Lee’s life.
My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that the cinema seats were incredibly uncomfortable and left the audience with numb bums. Oh I see, you want to know about the film? Well, it is ravishing to look at, understated but overhyped, has less to say than it thinks it has, has characters that are less than engaging and who mumble constantly into their metaphorical beards, rambles along with little apparent purpose, and fails to deliver much by way of dramatic punch in 2 hours 17 minutes. It goes nowhere much, says little, does nothing. It’s supposed to be a gut-wrenching emotional journey, but left me unmoved and uninvolved.
The essence of the film is simple: Chandler’s older brother dies suddenly, such that he travels 90 minutes to said MbtS, see the body and finds his brother has unexpectedly cast him in the role of guardian of Joe’s son Patrick, the wherewithal for which task he does not find within him.
Lee’s upper lip stays stiff regardless, in spite of his inner turmoil and self-blame. In a series of flashbacks we learn his mistake led to his house burning down and his two young daughters and baby son being killed. At the police station Chandler attempted suicide by taking the gun of an officer, but was wrestled to the ground before he could succeed. He tries to help Patrick, including taking him to see his girlfriends (no moral probity!), and to see his paranoid mother (Gretchen Mol) – now with Matthew Broderick‘s uptight and religious fiancé.
Lee runs into his ex (Michelle Williams) who blubs and apologises for blaming him for the accident, though she is remarried and has a new child of her own. Eventually, Lee tells Patrick he has a new job in Boston and will leave him in the care of C J Wilson‘s boat owner George. That’s pretty much it really; less an arc than as a downward spiral, and not even a proper tragedy.
Affleck delivers a slow-burn low-key performance but doesn’t win friends in quite the same way Lucas Hedges‘ Patrick succeeds, but the pacing of the film is not Affleck’s fault. There is an awful lot of time devoted to the camera cringing as the characters struggle with what to say and usually fail. It is not an eloquent silence.
To be fair, there are moments of dry humour to be found in Lonnergan’s script, if you can hear them and have not fallen asleep, but they do not compensate for the lumpen exchanges in which precisely nothing is spoken, verbally or in any other way.
In fact, this is not in any way a bad film but neither am I going to rave about it. I’m fully aware a lot of people disagree with me, and they are welcome to their views – including my companion, who thought it “powerful.” I’m simply being honest when I say it did not hold my attention or inspire any emotional response in me. It gave me un coeur en hiver, apparently. Fact is, you shouldn’t be left feeling flat from an Oscar-worthy movie, period.
PS. To show my desire for balance, here is an alternative review from a respected source:
To say that I liked this film would be a massive understatement..I truly and utterly loved the hell out of it. A hard hitting drama, gritty, gut wrenching and moving.
Yet it never reaches the point where you feel the film is wallowing in the misery of its characters for the sake of it, not misery porn in the way a film like say Iñarritu’s 21 grams is often guilty of becoming.
The difficult reality of the character’s situation is explored in a straighforward manner. We the audience are invited to project ourselves onto these characters and imagine how we would feel under the circumstances. How would we cope with such extreme trauma and tragedy?
Here we see some of the worst a human being can go through and an exploration of how time deals with loss and is it possible to find redemption and salvation from guilt, regret and sorrow. Is there always a light at the end of the tunnel?
Casey Affleck delivers yet another tour de force acting performance. A fascinatingly internalised and subtle delivery that manages to convey a million layers of supressed emotions. As much as I love his outing in The Assassination of Jesse James this in a totally different way equally hits all those high notes.
I did get frustrated in several moments where his character suppresses emotions to such a degree that I couldn’t understand it but that relates more to projecting myself into those situations through his eyes and how I would respond.
I truly believe he deserves every award possible for his work in this film.
Michelle Williams who gets far less screen time then you’d expect from the marketing shines immensely in essential and crucial scenes. When the two leads engage it’s riveting and always believable and moving.
Last and special mention goes to 17 year old newcomer Lucas Hedges who delivers a brilliant and often hilarious turn in a key role. One to watch for the future and I’m sure he’ll get a lot of work based on his work in this.
And Kenneth Lonergan…boy this guy can direct!
He masterfully crafts every moment into something special, frequently humorous and filled with authentic true emotion. Even the seemingly very ordinary is paced perfectly , never interrupting the consistent rythym of the story. Lonergan, who also excels as a screenwriter and playwright, writes such subtle and brilliant dialogue that gives the film it’s consistent power in even seemingly unremarkable moments.
It’s effortlessly brilliant, engaging funny, and moving. You wI’ll hardly find a better film this year.
I adore it.