Manchester by the Sea (2016)

Review #1,408

Director:  Kenneth Lonergan
Cast:  Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges, Kyle Chandler 
Plot:  An uncle is asked to take care of his teenage nephew after the boy's father dies.

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Won 2 Oscars - Best Leading Actor, Best Original Screenplay.  Nom. for 4 Oscars - Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress
Runtime:  137min
Rating:  NC16 for language throughout and some sexual content
Distributor:  United International Pictures

“I can't beat it.  I can't beat it.  I'm sorry.”

If you are still not convinced of Casey Affleck as an actor, Manchester by the Sea will pull you across the fence.  He is the brooding presence of Kenneth Lonergan's long-awaited third feature (he takes long breaks between projects), giving us a performance that is best described as socially withdrawn, and likely to win him his first acting Oscar. 

He plays Lee Chandler, a man suffering from a deep sadness, which the film through its dexterity in non-linear editing would reveal different time periods of his troubled life.  His is a fully-developed character, a janitor-cum-handyman working in Boston, whose past continues to keep him from moving on, but when he receives news that his brother in Manchester has died, he reluctantly becomes the legal guardian of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges in a pleasantly surprising Oscar-nominated role).

That sets the narrative gears running in what is a slow-building but assuredly-crafted tale of grief, guilt and loss.  But Lonergan, in his development of the Lee-Patrick relationship, doesn’t forget about human connection, hope and redemption, even if these seem to be hard-to-reach fantasies for Lee. 

What makes Manchester by the Sea engaging despite a heavy sense of abject is Lonergan's astute balance of dialogue and silence.  The ‘silence’ here is expressed poetically through a wordless series of images, be it of boats in the sea, snow-covered roads and houses, or in the film’s most formidable depiction, a key montage paired with the elegiac strings of ‘Adagio Per Archi E Organo in Sol Minore’, which is left to play in its entirety. 

The only times when Lee could afford a rare smile are when he’s on the family boat, with his brother and nephew, a trio of guys enjoying fishing and the small, intimate moments of life.  That was in a different, simpler time.  It reminds us: we all had our boats, now long gone.  But Lonergan tells us: as life goes on, there are other boats to get on, though they don’t come by easily.  He deserves to win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

Manchester by the Sea eschews, for better or worse, a sense of emotional catharsis for a deep exploration of what makes a wounded soul.  If a heavy heart could ever materialise in a physical, cinematic form, it would become this picture. 

Verdict:  A slow-building, assuredly-crafted tale of grief, guilt and loss, carried forth with brooding intensity by the remarkable Casey Affleck.


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