Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges and Michelle Williams star in this extraordinary awards-favourite
Kenneth Lonergan's magnificent third film, Manchester by the Sea, is dominated by what is absent as much as what is present.
For the audience, the extraordinary first hour is defined by the absence of information - more particularly the key inciting incident that recontextualises everything that comes before and after it. The characters in the film, meanwhile, are plagued by the absence of others - a father, a mother, a brother, a wife, a child. And ultimately it’s the absence of easy resolutions and happy endings that make this film so emotionally devastating and dramatically bountiful.
The use of flashbacks, in less careful hands, can be a narrative crutch. At worst, it’s a haphazard way of filling in gaps that never needed to be filled in in the first place. Manchester by the Sea, though, uses the tool to extraordinary effect.
When we first meet Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) it’s abundantly clear something is amiss. Miserable and temperamental in the film’s ‘present’, his mood stands in stark relief to the happier, sociable figure we’re introduced to in scattered reminiscences. Where exactly is Lee’s wife Randi (Michelle Williams, who works absolute miracles with barely a dozen scenes) and their children? Even the establishing shots of Lee’s hometown - the picturesque Manchester-by-the-Sea in Massachusetts - feel uneasy, the peaceful scenery disrupted by off-kilter angles and edits.
What Lonergan manages is to artfully but slowly fill the audiences’ knowledge gap between ‘now and then’ before masterfully revealing that defining trauma. It is a relatively simple dramatic trick, but it’s pulled off so elegantly here that when the reveal comes it flawlessly delivers the emotional knockout it absolutely must do. When the key flashback eventually plays out, it plays out in evocative detail - tiny little gestures (the awkward handling of a grocery bag stands out) communicate as much as the major revelations.
But even before that character (and film) defining trauma is revealed, it’s a family tragedy that pulls a reluctant Lee back to Manchester in the depths of winter. It’s clear that the death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) is a shock, but it’s doubly so when Lee becomes the de-facto guardian of Lee’s son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Forced to at least temporarily resettle in Manchester, it’s a place that is familiar yet also alien for Lee - almost as if this New England town is, for one man at least, haunted.
For Lee, the death of his brother is another suckerpunch when he’s already down and out. For the much younger Patrick, the sense of loss is particularly raw - his attempts to carry on with life cruelly disrupted by the regular realisations that his father really is gone. What happens when these two emotionally volatile characters collide is the sort of grand yet intimate family drama mainstream cinema doesn't really offer anymore - indeed, Manchester itself, despite obvious signs of modernity, feels like a place stuck out of time (the frozen environments only enhancing that feeling).
Despite the inescapable presence of grief, Manchester by the Sea is also a very funny and warm-hearted film. Patrick’s shambolic love life is a comedic well Lonergan regularly dips into, with Lee’s bemusement at his nephew’s multiple relationships proving both a source for bonding and conflict. It’s a tricky tonal balance, but it’s perfectly judged.
Indeed, the film on-the-whole feels like a much more coherent, consistent film than Lonergan's previous film Margaret, which miraculously emerged in 2011 after a hellish editing process. That film - which, in its theatrical version anyway, often felt like it was held together by good intentions, ambition and a smattering of pure luck - actually benefited from its unwieldy, novelistic approach. But there’s no doubt Manchester by the Sea has had its sharp edges smoothed down, and that’s necessary for the story being told. It cements Lonergan’s place as a shining light of American screenwriting and filmmaking.
For all the moments that earn genuine laughs, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this isn’t the sort of film with easy, crowdpleasing resolutions. The freezing Massachusetts winter transitions to an altogether more welcoming spring later in the film, accompanied by a changing attitude from Lee and Patrick themselves (captured in a jaunty montage).
But then a chance encounter serves as a heartbreaking reminder that no, change isn't actually that easy. These fascinating, grieving characters have a very long journey ahead of them.
Manchester by the Sea (15A / 137 minutes) is released nationwide on January 13th
VERDICT: ★★★★★ Manchester by the Sea is one of cinema’s most beautiful, emotionally turbulent explorations of the messiness of grief - but also happens to be very funny indeed.