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Manchester By The SeaUSA 2016
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
Running time 135 minutes
Synopsis: After the death of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) from congestive heart failure, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck),a brooding, irritable loner who works as a handyman in a Boston apartment block, takes leave and returns to Manchester-by-the-Sea, the fishing village where his working-class family has lived for generations. There, while caring for his brother’s teenage son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), who is estranged from his mother, Elise (Gretchen Mol), Lee is forced to deal with the unspeakable tragedy that separated him from his wife, Randi (Michelle Williams), and the community where he was born and raised. Lee’s plans are to stay only long enough to bury his brother, but when Joe’s will names him as Patrick’s guardian he must reconsider his future as well as his past.
With powerful performances in films like big brother Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone (2007) and Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) Casey Affleck has already established himself as a talented actor but here he finds new depths and dimensions to his craft, imbuing the role of Lee Chandler with a palpable sense of grief, anger, guilt and self-loathing that makes his performance, at times, almost too painful to watch. Fortunately, Affleck’s excellent work is balanced by an understated but equally strong performance by Hedges. There’s a lightness to the young actor’s portrayal of the teenage boy that not only provides a counterpoint to the density of Affleck’s character, but finds a real authenticity in his adolescent response to the death of his father and the imposition of his uncle as guardian.
Lonergan, whose previous films include You Can Count On Me (2000) and Margaret (2011) is quite adept at peeling back the layers of emotional damage within his characters. Here, his approach is to use extended memory sequences to simultaneously tell us what brought these characters to this point in their lives and how their pasts are impacting on their ability to deal with the present. They are more than just flashbacks providing backstory for the audience. Each one works to build a greater understanding of Lee’s complex character and whilst the effect of pulling him out of the present moment into repressed memory is sometimes jarring, it is also a highly effective way to tell this difficult story as the various out-of-order pieces are assembled to create a compelling whole.
In addition to great performances by Affleck and Hedges, Michelle Williams again demonstrates what a fine and subtle actor she is. Her scene with Affleck in which she tries to address the past is heartbreaking. Mol is also strong as Patrick’s ‘born again’ mother, backed up by a small but effective appearance by Matthew Broderick as Jeffery, her new husband.
Lonergan’s screenplay is a slow-burn, allowing each character to develop incrementally. It may not be the three-plus hours of Margaret but at more than two hours running time it’s a story that won’t be rushed and yet, as the credits roll, it seems as though the time has just slipped by. For me, the only detraction is an overpowering soundtrack by Lesley Barber which at times feels overwrought in its underscoring of the drama.
With more than its fair share of sadness Manchester by the Sea is not a film for the faint-hearted but it is not a tear-jerker. It’s a very moving and studied examination of the way tragedy can both destroy and galvanise a family in equal measure.