Manchester By The Sea
A drama of thickly layered grief Kenneth Lonergan’s MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is a grim march from top to tail. As with the auteur’s underseen 2011 tour-de-force MARGARET, MANCHESTER packages dramatic riches within a fairly simple plot structure. The film follows morose Janitor Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) as he travels from Quincy (South Boston) back to his long abandoned hometown (the titular Manchester-by-the-Sea) and, in the wake of his brother’s death, struggles with the responsibility of assuming guardianship of his teenage nephew Patrick (an impressively natural and nuanced performance from Lucas Hedges). The tentative threads of the pair’s near forgotten ‘early years’ closeness keep them bound together as each attempts to come to grips with their own personal sense of loss—brother vs. father—and an of understanding of the other. Lee travels the film with a weighty depressive undertone colouring all of his interactions: guilt-laden taciturnity in the face of flirting, flashes of barroom violence over nothing in place of dealing with his inner demons. Lonergan goes for the slow reveal, perhaps leaning a little too heavily on the ‘significant flashback’ in the process, building incremental context for Lee’s melancholia and his struggle to be back in his hometown.
MANCHESTER is Affleck’s film through and through, and he certainly gives a noteworthy performance. But for me the dramatic heft of the film is equally afforded by a raft of incredibly strong support performances. Lonergan gives Lucas Hedges plenty to work with in the character of Patrick and the young actor rises to the occasion, really inhabiting the role. Patrick’s growing awareness of his untethered state, slowly encroaching into his overriding teenage self-focus, is made completely believable by Hedges. Michelle Williams also excels as Lee’s ex Randi. The screen bursts at its emotional seams in a scene where Randi confronts their shared history, after happening upon Lee in the street. Likewise, a scene where Patrick visits his estranged mother Elise (Gretchen Mol) and her conspicuously religious partner Jeffrey (Matthew Broderick) successfully conveys complex relational tension through some fine ensemble work. These performances are all underpinned by Lonergan’s rich, lived-in feeling characters and his aptitude for writing heightened yet honest feeling dialogue. However, where MARGARET’s plethora of characters-writ-large, along with the expansiveness of New York City, played perfectly into Lonergan’s operatic tendencies, MANCHESTER feels confined. This sense of confinement is mirrored by Lee who just “can’t beat it”—his history, the judgment or forgiveness of others, and even this town. Consequently, the large scale, in-your-face scoring often jars rather than elevates, and the roiling-under-the-surface emotion ends up feeling squashed down. Despite being somewhat at odds with itself MANCHESTER delivers richer, more compelling drama than you’ll likely encounter elsewhere, with performances to match. And that’s not even mentioning Jody Lee Lipes’s (AFTERSCHOOL, MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE &c.) beatific rendering of the wintry grey Massachusetts locales. MANCHESTER may not quite evince the peak of Lonergan’s powers but it is plenty toothsome if you’ve got a hankering for meaty character drama and don’t mind depressing tales.
Rating: R13 Violence, offensive language and content that may disturb.