Ahead of our Trip To The Oscars screening next Tuesday, Tanya Dudnikova reviews Kenneth Lonergan’s awards season favourite.
In a busy awards season, Kenneth Lonergan’s long-awaited Manchester By The Sea feels like a breath of fresh air. Lonergan’s screenplay was featured on the 2014 Black List, an annual round-up of the best screenplays which have not been picked up for production, and the finished film does not by any means disappoint. Centred on gloomy, taciturn janitor and handyman Lee, portrayed beautifully by Casey Affleck in without a doubt a career-best performance, the film manages to be in turn tear-jerking and funny, oscillating smoothly between drawn-out moments of contemplation and moving exchanges between the stellar leads.
Stony-faced Lee Chandler, living in a tiny flat in a lifeless Boston apartment block, is a man of few words. Scene by scene, Lonergan builds up a picture of him as a melancholy recluse with a penchant for picking fights in bars with strangers at a slight provocation. His voice is almost eerily soft, and he never gives us a glimpse into what is really going on inside his head; the audience is left in the dark, excluded from his internal narrative. For the first half of the film, the reasons for his behaviour are unexplained, although it is clear from the outset that we are looking at a broken man, a man who is a mere shell of his previous self. This idea is repeatedly expressed in the form of flashbacks which feature a much happier Lee and an engaging performance from Kyle Chandler as Lee’s older brother Joe, the cheerier counterpart to Lee’s malcontent.
In the present, Lee’s monotonous life is suddenly disrupted when he learns that Joe has died after a years-long battle with congenital heart disease, forcing him to return to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea – a real town on the north shore of Massachusetts – to make funeral arrangements. Matters are further complicated when he is told that he has been made the legal guardian of Joe’s teenage son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Patrick is a typical teenager, concerned above all with keeping his life as it was before the tragedy – his friends, his two girlfriends (who, he hastens to explain, do not know about each other, ‘so please don’t say anything in case it comes up’), his hockey team and his band. It is in the interactions between Lee and Patrick that the film truly blossoms, if in a rather unexpected manner. The opening section of the film signposts that what we are about to witness is a story of renewal and reconciliation, where the bitter janitor’s heart is thawed through this tender relationship with the younger boy. But Lonergan, very wisely, chooses not to go down the conventional path, preferring instead to leave the story as an open exploration of angst and bereavement. When the reason for Lee’s grief is finally revealed to us – and it is truly heartbreaking – we begin to understand that maybe he is a man who cannot, and will not, ever be healed.
Also in the picture is Lee’s ex-wife Randi, played by Michelle Williams, who despite limited screen time manages to quietly but powerfully seize our attention every time she appears on the screen. With appearances from Gretchen Mol as Patrick’s estranged alcoholic mother, Elise, Matthew Broderick as Patrick’s religious stepfather and Kara Hayward as Silvie, one of Patrick’s girlfriends (Hayward and Hedges previously appeared together in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom), the cast is indeed exceptional, but there is no doubt it is Affleck who deserves most of the praise. Despite raking in an Oscar nomination for The Assassination of Jesse James in 2008, in recent years there has been a sense that Casey is living in his brother’s shadow. Here, however, he finally affirms his status as a leading man who can draw not only critical acclaim but also impressive box-office figures. The entire film is built around Affleck’s measured and restrained performance, which, ironically, is also one of its major flaws. For a film that can be seen as a study of grief and the pain of struggling to move on it is at times surprisingly emotionless. Filtered through Affleck’s cold and distant gaze, scenes that should be overflowing with feeling appear callous, and not nearly as emotive as they might have been. Another area where the film falters marginally is in its pacing. With a hefty runtime of 137 minutes, there are a handful of sections that feel superfluous, not adding either to the story or character development.
Despite some mild shortcomings, Lonergan’s brooding drama still manages to be one of the best films of the year, and well worth watching. By choosing to focus not on the grandiose, but on the minutiae of human life and the day-to-day struggles of its characters, he has created a film that feels more real than anything else you will see on the screen this season.
Manchester By The Sea is out now in UK cinemas – come along to our Trip To The Oscars screening of the film next Tuesday. See the UK trailer below: