A sail through rocky waters
Another week, another critically acclaimed flick arriving on these shores – no surprise as Oscar season gets ever closer.
But Manchester by the Sea is a very different animal to La La Land – there’s no singing and dancing or boundless optimism on display here.
Instead Kenneth Lonergan’s third directorial outing is a down to earth character study about grief, regret and fractured lives that makes for a tough – but gripping – watch.
Casey Affleck stars as Lee Chandler, a janitor who returns to the titular town when his brother dies and is forced to take care of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) and re-engage with exwife Randi (Michelle Williams).
When viewing the trailers for Manchester by the Sea, I was concerned it would be a depressing tale and while Lonergan’s story doesn’t pull any punches, it drags you off in a series of different emotional beats.
Meaty material, then, for the cast and Lonergan coaxes Affleck into an even better performance than Affleck’s brother Ben managed in 2007’s Gone Baby Gone.
In fact, this is probably the finest work of Casey’s career in a stripped-back, lived-in role that perfectly embodies a character burdened by a troubled past who is all of a sudden thrust into an unwanted situation way beyond his control.
Williams hasn’t always been one of my favourite actresses, but the 36-year-old is terrific here; much closer to her quality work in Brokeback Mountain and My Week with Marilyn.
Randi is a spitfire of a woman who gives as good as she gets in her back-and-forth verbal tête-à-têtes with Lee and the pair say more with their eyes, sighs and slumped shoulders than many other stars could with pages of dialogue.
Lonergan utilises flashbacks to patiently fill in the dots of Lee’s past and help the viewer understand why he’s so reluctant to be back in his home town.
Jody Lee Lipes’ (Martha Marcy May Marlene, Trainwreck) desaturated cinematography impressively encapsulates a small fishing town with familiar faces protective of their surroundings.
The writer-director thankfully drip feeds warmth and humour into the often hard-going drama, not least during an unexpected quirky hospital family congregation in aid of Lee’s older brother Joe (a likeable Kyle Chandler) after he’s diagnosed with a terminal heart condition.
But for chunks of the film’s two-hours-plus length, Lonergan asks a lot of his audience by shooting scenes of little consequence – and there’s no getting away from the gloomy central storyline.
Wisely, though, he chooses to end things with a ray of hope as Lee’s journey comes full circle.
Overall, Manchester by the Sea sails through one or two rocky waters to take you on a beautifully-acted, moving journey.
Troubled past Williams and Affleck share memories