The always watchable Casey Affleck has already picked up a Golden Globe, with an Oscar likely to follow, for his fine work in writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s expertly textured, evocatively slow-burning Manchester By The Sea.
Affleck plays Boston janitor Lee Chandler, who returns to his titular Massachusetts hometown after the death of his brother and finds himself coming face to face with the never-decreasing ripples of an earlier family tragedy. Lee’s new responsibilities centre on his unwanted guardianship of teenage nephew Patrick, played by the promising Lucas Hedges, among a supporting cast that also includes Kyle Chandler, Michelle Williams and Gretchen Mol.
Lonergan is the much-revered maker of the similarly themed You Can Count On Me and the more experimental and expansive Margaret (which is really quite brilliant, at least in its longer, director-approved version). The flashback structure he employs for Manchester by the Sea is relatively simple but reveals complex layers within layers as time proves more sadist than great healer.
This slow-moving picture gives due weight to the ‘heavy’ stuff – loss, grief, the crippling effects of bad fortune, and the doling out of assumed blame. But thanks to Lonergan’s spot-on dialogue and superb playing all round, there is much humour to be enjoyed amidst the realistic human drama.
Chekhov said: “Any fool can cope with crisis. The difficult thing is to cope with everyday life.” Manchester by the Sea reminds us we all have different ways of ‘coping’. That jigsaw, or patchwork quilt, of emotional hurt and recovery makes up much of the movie, just as it makes up a family, and a community, for better or for worse.
The wintry coastal locations are superbly photographed by Jody Lee Lipes. But it’s Affleck who dominates the foreground as Lee tries to make sense of his past while courageously wrestling with the demands of an uncertain future. Affleck’s performance manages to simultaneously contain and reveal his character’s angst, anger and agonies, reminiscent of Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces.
Lonergan also writes plays, and his cinema work is often described as ‘theatrical’ – it features wordy dialogue and ensemble casts, and characters tend to exit stage left, only to return, fully transformed, somewhere in Act III. But Manchester by the Sea is also wonderfully cinematic, particularly an ice-hockey sequence in which players pass Lee and Patrick in one direction, then the other, reflecting how the lives of the tragedy-hit Chandler family are destined to spool out in a different direction and at a different pace to all those around them.
Take a trip to Manchester by the Sea – but steel yourself, wear your thermal underwear, and maybe have a hip flask close to hand.
Manchester by the Sea is in UK cinemas from January 13.