Manchester by the Sea

by Toby Woollaston


mbtsIt’s Oscar season and the nominated films are being released thick and fast.  One of the contenders, Manchester by the Sea, is the third feature film by director and writer Kenneth Lonergan (Margaret), who was originally best known for his work as a playwright.  Here, Lonergan has brought to the big screen a heartbreaking tale of social tragedy.

Lee (Casey Affleck) is a janitor working in Boston. He is extremely withdrawn and clearly carries unexplained baggage from his past that periodically bubbles to the surface with outbursts of anger.  When his brother dies he is reluctantly dragged back into his dark past, both emotionally and physically, to the town where he grew up, Manchester (yep, it’s by the sea).  He is forced to face his demons and become intimately connected to the people he had previously withdrawn from.

Structurally the film presents two timelines; the present day Lee who is quiet, withdrawn, and unsure of himself as he deals with the weighty issues surrounding the custody of his nephew (Lucas Hedges) and relationship with his ex-wife (Michelle Williams).  In contrast, this is intertwined with flashbacks of his confident and outgoing past self. As the film progresses, both personas gravitate towards one another on a collision course that generates a burning curiosity regarding the reason for his regression, but it also comes with a foreboding sense of dread.

Some of its most harrowing moments are contrasted against the comically absurd and mundane details of everyday life. The crucial and distressing scene that explains Lee’s torment is comically offset by ambulance officers struggling with a jammed stretcher. Such moments allow for humorous relief but also serve to flesh out the gravity of Lee’s personal struggles.

One of the film’s great strengths are the performances.  Michelle Williams makes wonderful use of her limited screen time, and Casey Affleck’s nuanced portrayal of isolation and withdrawal is a tour de force of onscreen acting.  His ability to show a maelstrom of rage and despair bubbling just beneath a thin veneer of control is riveting to watch — and all within a frame that eschews closeups. It’s no surprise he landed the Golden Globe and I’d be surprised if he doesn’t get the Oscar nod too.

Despite a couple of minor false steps (Michelle William’s character had too little screen time, and I had some reservations over the musical score), Manchester by the Sea is a wonderfully haunting portrayal of grief and regret — worth seeing if none-other than for Affleck’s performance alone.

Rating: 4 suppressed feelings out of 5

You can see the published review here.