At the Movies: Manchester by the Sea

At the Movies: Manchester by the Sea

I totally accept that going to see a film in January that wasn’t La La Land was slightly insane…but I feel that after having seen it twice already, and knowing the soundtrack back to front (Ryan Gosling’s suit is wool- obviously) it was probably time to move on, and venture on to one of the (probable) ‘serious’ Oscar contenders….

Manchester by the Sea is writer/director Kenneth Lonergan‘s third film and stars Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams. The trailer promises us a bleak tale filled with woe and hope in which a man, upon learning of his brother’s death, must return to his hometown, (Manchester by the Sea) to look after his brother’s teenage son, and in doing so, ‘find himself’…probably not Just Another Day of Sun…

But the sincerity of the trailer doesn’t do this film justice…

Affleck plays Lee, an irascible, monosyllabic janitor who has absolutely no interest in forming any sort of relationship- with anyone. He regularly insults his customers and picks fights with random men in grotty bars. He is clearly disillusioned with life and appears intent on paying penance for his mysterious past. His return to Manchester by the Sea is met with whispers and shock: he is not just Lee Chandler but the Lee Chandler. Whatever he has done, or whatever has happened to him is apparently too horrific for discussion and we are left totally in the dark. Throughout the course of the film we learn about his past, his relationship with his wife (Michelle Williams) and his children. But nothing prepares us for the shocking revelation ¾ through the film where, suddenly, we understand.

But the film is so much more than a mere vehicle for this denouement. Many of the scenes appears as vignettes- totally compelling and complete in and of themselves. Odd moments of humour are played against maelstroms of tragedy (eg. Joe Chandler’s hospital diagnosis). And so, despite the plot not being the most original, the film feels completely fresh. In complete contrast to Clint Eastwood’s  Sully (the most recent film I’ve hated) Lonergan doesn’t simply pay lip service to his characters, he genuinely captures their nuances and eccentricities. And the dissonance of Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler from an extraverted family man in the flashbacks to total gnomic loner left me with a sense of intrigue…

But the thing that jarred with me was the music, which felt somewhat incongruous. And although it worked at the start of the film and hinted to the fact that perhaps, all was not well, and there was something yet to be discovered, in some of the more overtly emotional moments, it felt a little overblown (notably in the funeral scene and in the final scene). But perhaps it was to the film’s credit that, bar a few moments, it didn’t try to force an emotional repose from its audience.

There’s a scene in a police station towards the end of the film in which Lee struggles with the idea that no one is to blame for the tragedy. And I think that moment was very revealing. Things are left unresolved and relationships cannot be salvaged. But the film offers no solution, nor any real redemption. No one is really to blame. And this makes it all the more devastating.

Honestly, the most sensible thing to do after coming out of a screening of Manchester by the Sea, is to walk straight into a screening of La La Land.


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