Manchester by the Sea is written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan and stars Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Kyle Chandler, Gretchen Mol, CJ Wilson and Michelle Williams. It follows Lee Chandler, a lonely, middle-aged plumber who has to return to his home of Manchester in New Hampshire after he hears his brother, who suffers a heart condition, has gone back to hospital. Soon, he is left to take care of his nephew Patrick, and with his past coming back to remind him of why he left Manchester in the first place, he is left to experience the struggles of his old life. Now the first thing that I was thinking about going into this was the Oscar buzz. This film is garnering it's fair share of attention this awards season, whether it be for the lead actors, the writing, the direction, or the film as a whole, so I was heavily bearing this in my mind before I watched it. That being said, it's not something I would let influence my opinion on the film. I also haven't actually seen any of Lonergan's previous directorial work, despite hearing great thing about You Can Count on Me, and decidedly mixed things about Margaret, so I didn't particularly have much of an insight beforehand. So, one question remains; what did I think? Here's my take on Manchester by the Sea.
I have to say that I did think, in all honesty, that this was quite excellent, despite having but a few flaws. Firstly, I think it's true that some of the supporting characters don't necessarily get as much time as they need. The most prominent of these is Michelle Williams, who, despite having her face on the poster and seemingly being a big contender for awards season, doesn't appear in the film all that much. Her performance is crushingly nuanced and believable, bearing weight and gorgeous legitimacy, but she doesn't quite get the chance to shine that she deserves. The real standout therefore is, appropriately, the lead actor. Casey Affleck gives his best performance yet as the existentially simple but internally complex Lee Chandler, in a portrayal that cuts deep into the audience, as they are able to find a deeply moving identifiability with him. I was also surprised, however, by young actor Lucas Hedges, who plays Chandler's nephew. I don't think he necessarily showed quite the level of conviction that some critics are praising him for, but I do think he still managed to convincingly portray a 16 year old boy, and the confusions and distractions that come with this.
I also think that the film's ability to be genuinely touching is a testament to it's ability to be genuinely realistic. The performances, matched with the cold but sharp cinematography of Jody Lee Lipes, makes for an almost documentarian feel, as we are able to believe in everything that happens and understand it as if it is in the real world. This allows for the remarkably layered emotion to be all the more human and the surprisingly funny comedy, of which there is more of than one would expect, to be all the more relatable and to fit in startlingly well. This doesn't make it at all a comedy though, and definitely doesn't make the harshness of the emotion any less impactful. There is an absolutely astonishing and haunting flashback sequence in the middle of the film that allows us to truly understand the torture that the protagonist is going through; one that both breaks our hearts and helps us identify with the film's meaning. It is structurally, technically and emotionally perfect, giving us possibly the most affecting and crushingly dark moment in the film. It is also edited wonderfully into the scenes of present day, juxtaposing the quiet difficulties of Chandler's return to Manchester with the chaotic and harrowing difficulties of his past there. The past is cut together with the present a fair amount; often cutting frequently between the two, and the ultimate effect of this is calmly, but wonderfully, powerful.
The film is 2 hours and 17 minutes long, and whilst you do feel it's length slightly (in that, I mean that it doesn't feel like it's shorter than it is), you do come out feeling that there could have been more. Usually I would wish for a film to be shorter than it's running time suggests, but in this case, I actually think some things could have been fleshed out even more. Whilst the scenes of Affleck's relationship with his ex-wife are marvellously thoughtful and honest, you do sometimes think there could be more without it distracting from the main story, and I thought Lonergan missed his opportunity in a couple of places. I also think other elements and relationships within the film could have had more to them, such as Patrick's relationship with his Mother, as well as the presence of George in both Patrick and Lee's lives, and this led to me wanting just that something more from the film upon leaving. That being said, it's not like Lonergan's script isn't as outstanding as it is; it's just that there could have been a small amount more to make the experience more thoroughly sorrowful. The script is actually quite fresh and poignant, with a subtlety that is rather intimately explosive, as Lonergan constructs a dynamic story that is packed with weight and sensitivity.
Overall, Manchester by the Sea may leave you wishing that there was ever so slightly more in some of aspects of the writing, but what it does give you is a film that ends up being about guidance and acceptance in the face of loss, and this allows for a moving and genuine experience that is one of the most believable and authentic I've had from a film in the past year. Kenneth Lonergan proves himself to be a filmmaker I should be more engaged in, as he both writes and directs in a manner that is wholly impressive. What will be perhaps be the most memorable thing is the profound and empathetic performance of Casey Affleck; a performance that deserves all the praise and buzz that it is getting, and that I'm sure will be a shoe-in by the time the Oscars come around. If you're in the UK and want to go to the cinema this month, go and see Manchester by the Sea.
So what did you think of Manchester by the Sea? Have you seen it? Did you enjoy it? Make sure to let me know down in the comments and if you liked this review and want to see more like it go to creators.co/@garwoodreviews for more.