Posts Tagged ‘Manchester by the Sea’

In the great firmament of Hollywood stars, Casey Affleck has always been the equivalent of Sirius B: which is not to say that he is actually a dwarf, just that it has been very easy to overlook him given that his big brother is an acclaimed actor, screenwriter, director, and Batman. This may be about to change, for Affleck Minor is attracting a lot of attention for his formidably accomplished performance in Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea.


What’s that you cry? Manchester isn’t by the sea. Manchester is only really noted for its ship canal (and its cotton industry and football teams and history as both a musical powerhouse and a trainer of first-rate EFL teachers). Well, thing is, it ain’t that Manchester; the film is concerned with Manchester-by-the-Sea, which apparently really is the name of a small town in Massachusetts.

Or perhaps I should say it’s concerned with a small group of former and current inhabitants of the town, primarily Lee (Affleck Minor), who as the story starts is working as a janitor in the greater Boston area. We are shown some of the day-to-day of Lee’s routine, and it gradually becomes apparent that while he appears quiet and unremarkable, Lee is actually a fairly heavy-duty piece of work, responding quickly and with violence (verbal and physical) to anyone who pushes him.

Not the most sympathetic of characters, then, even when he is summoned home to Manchester after his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) suffers a heart attack and passes away. This does not come as much of a surprise to anyone who knows the family, but what is a little startling – to Lee, anyway – is that Joe’s will makes him the legal guardian of his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Quite apart from everything else, taking on this role will either mean moving Patrick to Boston, an idea he fiercely resists, or Lee’s moving back to Manchester – something he is equally against. He has history and a rather black reputation in this town, and there is also the presence of his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams), with whom he has a strained relationship, to say the least…

I’m curious to see how well Manchester by the Sea does when the awards season really gets going in earnest, for while it certainly deserves to be in contention for major prizes, I suspect many people will be in the mood for a slightly more hopeful narrative, and perhaps one less ballasted with reality, than we get here. Make no mistake, this is a very fine film, but it’s a pint of bitter rather than a cocktail. It fits seamlessly into a tradition of gritty narratives about life in small-town, blue-collar America, and much about the structure and subject matter of the piece is rather theatrical – I can imagine a lengthy process of everyone developing their characters together, improvising, working out the story, even though for all I know every single word was scripted by Lonergan well in advance of production.

As a result this is a film driven by character and atmosphere rather than incident, and there are the kind of discursive scenes you don’t tend to find in much genre cinema: a group of teenagers argue about whether Star Trek is any good or not, people go fishing together, and there’s quite a long scene where two characters forget where they parked and wander about trying to find their car. It’s all quite naturalistic – a distinct lack of non-diegetic music, except at key moments in the story – but the characters are vividly drawn and very engaging. I baulked a bit at seeing the nearly two-and-a-half-hour running time for this film, but while I was watching found that it didn’t drag at all, despite the illusion of not very much seeming to happen.

As you might expect, this is really an actor’s movie, and primarily Affleck Minor’s. This is not to say that Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, and particularly Lucas Hedges are not very good indeed, it’s just that they have limited screen time in secondary roles (also turning up for an unexpected but well-executed cameo is Matthew Broderick, who I didn’t think I’d seen on the big screen – or indeed any other kind of screen – since Godzilla – clearly I’ve bleached the remake of The Stepford Wives from my memory core. Consider your penance served, Matt, it’s nice to see you again away). The film is Affleck’s, for it essentially concerns a particular kind of inarticulate masculinity of which his character is the chief exponent. Many of the scenes just concern men failing to quite connect with each other, with the story developing in the interstices between their personalities, and Affleck does an exemplary job of suggesting character without once being caught acting.

Much of the film’s drama and emotion comes from Lee’s past and his inability to process it, while much of its warmth and humour arise out of his attempts to take on an avuncular role for which he is really very ill-equipped. It says something for Affleck Minor’s achievement that he takes a character who initially comes across as an alarming loner with a hair-trigger temper and makes you care for him as a sympathetic, almost heroic figure, and does this without recourse to histrionics or cheap sentiment. If in the end he remains all too human, well, that’s part of what the film is about, which is the realities of life and emotion.

But, as I say, do audiences and awards juries really want reality right at this moment in time? I doubt it, somehow. (And exactly do you compare, for instance, Affleck Minor’s superbly actorly performance here with Goosey-Goosey Gosling’s brilliant song-and-dance turn in La La Land?) Nevertheless, this is a superbly well-made film and a very rewarding one to watch.


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