Tragedy sticks to Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler like a leech, unwilling to let go, draining him of his vitality and numbing him until everything that he ever loved or appreciated is simply an obscure, abstract memory. Working as a janitor in Boston, one day he gets a call informing him his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died, finally succumbing to a long-term heart condition. Returning to his hometown to sort out the funeral arrangements, the Manchester-by-the-sea of the title, Lee finds himself at a loss with all these old memories, whilst also being startled by the revelation that Joe’s will placed Lee as the legal guardian of his son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges).
Kenneth Lonergan’s exquisitely-written drama is a very keenly-observed piece of work that can only arise from a lifetime of experience with human beings. It’s that intensity of observation that leads to the film’s most painful moments but also its frequent enough splashes of black comedy; Patrick’s teenage aloofness towards his uncle is offset by his frank attitude towards sex and his lack of embarrassment over trying to get Lee to wingman for him. The pair’s wildly varying reactions to losing such a close family member reveal a lot about their respective differences, but on closer inspection, Patrick, who doesn’t display much outward grief, isn’t all that dissimilar from his uncle, both of them burying themselves in numbing distractions: Lee in beer and hockey, Patrick in teenage sex and band practice.
All the meanwhile, flashbacks intercut into the film depict Joe as an affable, likeable man to most people, the kind of person whose loss will engender memories of him in open platitudes. Whilst other characters frequently reference his kindliness, it seems to have no effect on Lee or Patrick. The details fold into themselves, entering us into a rich world of character detail.
The performances throughout are pitch-perfect, and amount to a devastating emotional impact. Affleck is currently a frontrunner for the Best Actor Oscar, and on this evidence it would be fully deserved. Not only is it a complex and difficult role, loaded with weighty interiority, it’s also the kind of muted, downcast role that often doesn’t really play well with Oscar voters who prefer showy monologues or pseudo-heroic “character transformations”, so it would mark an interesting change from the norm. Alongside, the supporting actors flesh out Lonergan’s detailed frame. Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife gets maybe ten minutes at most, but she uses every single second in full service to her character’s offscreen fullness and heartbreak. Lucas Hedges marks himself out as a real rising star. Kyle Chandler meanwhile, takes a difficult character, a ghost even, such is his looming presence over the narrative, and gives him an realness beyond what is superficially in the script.
If there are flaws, they are minor: Lonergan is an exquisite writer, but not the sharpest of directors. Manchester by the Sea is simply shot, with the camera mostly keeping its distance and staying fairly still, allowing us to observe events rather than having the film comment on them, but Lonergan very occasionally lets his guard down with some jarring editing and lackadaisical composition. Then again, with his performers at the top of their game playing characters this well-written, the film doesn’t need to look like a masterpiece. It already is from the ground up.
words FEDOR TOT