Milo Garner reviews Kenneth Lonergan’s (acclaimed writer of The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle) recently released Manchester by the Sea.
Kenneth Lonergan’s third directorial effort is perhaps his greatest achievement yet. Given that it follows his excellent debut You Can Count on Me, and ambitious sophomore Margaret, this is no small praise.
Manchester by the Sea, set on the American East Coast, follows the story of Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) after the sudden death of his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler). This loss not only bereaves Lee of his brother, but leaves a further responsibility – to look after Joe’s son Patrick, whose mother (Gretchen Mol) had earlier gone AWOL. Lee is then left with various dilemmas – whether to take guardianship of the boy, whether to move back to Manchester or try and take him to his home in Boston, and whether to get in contact with Patrick’s mother.
Though a simple plot structure, one that could near as easily serve as a comedy, Manchester by the Sea succeeds through its script’s reservation and subtlety, said script being, like those in Lonergan’s former films, utterly human. The absence of melodrama is striking throughout, with Lee’s character in particular seeming to exist beyond any narrative arc or oncoming dramatic climax. Through Affleck’s brilliant performance he is instead portrayed as a man caught in the throes of grief, but not only for a moment, rather for a life. Around mid-way through the film we are shown, slowly through use of flashbacks, another tragedy experienced by Lee – his moment of peripeteia. To contextualise this revelation, and Lee’s character in the rest of the film, we are also shown choice glimpses of his life before the incident. But to the audience as to Lee himself these seem distant and vague: pieces of a life lost.
Lonergan’s approach to grief here is mature and deeply sad. The Hollywood idea that it will get better, especially when presented with an opportunity like raising a nephew, is rejected outright. Lee remains a character who doesn’t feel like he’s capable of doing the right thing anymore – someone whose life has hit a dead end. The focus is less on recovery, rather on coping, and Manchester by the Sea displays this without error.
But this isn’t the only vision of grief offered. Patrick represents the converse: someone who lost his father but makes an effort to return to normality. Keeping around his friends, balancing his precarious girlfriend situation (one too many), and playing in his band; he resists the temptation to fall into a depression. That isn’t to say he gets off fine. Patrick is clearly shaken by the events; besides a few near-breakdowns he cannot dislodge the uneasy feeling when he thinks about his father’s body being frozen until weather conditions are adequate for the burial. In this somewhat innocuous process of freezing he loads all his insecurity regarding the event, culminating in a panic attack that Hedges manages to render rather well.
One of the most interesting parts of the film is how these two characters interplay, how Patrick’s quiet dependence on Lee’s presence forces Affleck’s character to take some responsibility, and perhaps realise he is not so totally worthless as he might believe. That isn’t to say Patrick’s character exists to heal Lee, nor that Lee is healed at all. Rather that a new perspective is introduced. It should be mentioned that, especially in the case of Patrick, the film is injected with a fair amount of comedy despite the overt darkness of the script, and this is again a reality effect Lonergan has often used in his former films. Circumstances even as sad as these are often punctuated by everyday humour, and as production designer Ruth De Jong notes, ‘it’s real life, the sun still shines’.
Aside from Lee and Patrick there is also Randi (played without fault by Michelle Williams), Lee’s ex-wife, who left him during the aforementioned tragic circumstances in what is implied to be a less-than-cordial split. Returning to Manchester, a town Lee had banished himself from since the incident, he is forced to come to terms with what he left behind – Randi being the clearest representation of this. There is one particular scene toward the end of the film where they bump into each other on the street, and Randi apologises for her past transgressions, and then in an increasingly desperate tone pleads that Lee join her for a coffee some time; an attempt to turn back the clock, at least a little. In his typically awkward and muted manner Lee refuses and attempts to leave the conversation, but the protracted nature of the scene doesn’t let him go so easily; as a result the encounter becomes ever more emotionally wrenching. Like Randi we wish they could go back in time, but like Lee we know that it just isn’t possible. Their bed is made and they have to lie in it, depressing though it might be. Another director might have had them reconcile, but Lonergan’s masterful touch is that they don’t. In this anti-melodrama such scars do not heal, and the stellar acting in this scene only makes this clearer.
On the note of melodrama there is one aspect, and only one, in which the film potentially leans in that direction, that being the music. One of Lonergan’s directorial calling cards is the use of beautiful baroque and operatic music, and in Manchester by the Sea this tradition is retained, with a particular highlight being the use of Albinoni’s Adagio in G (unarguably one of the most emotional pieces of the baroque period) during the flashback scene to Lee’s initial tragedy. Though this produces a moment of melodrama very effectively, the music is better suited for its aesthetic quality than its capacity to manipulate emotions. This aesthetic quality exists in the film otherwise, too, especially in its superlative cinematography. Though, again, understated, the camera has a soft focus to it and captures the blues and whites of the cold Manchester coast superbly, mirroring the tone of the film while again not being oppressively dark. There is plenty of natural beauty to be found in Manchester, even, if not especially, in the depths of winter.
Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian described Manchester by the Sea as a ‘minor-key masterpiece’, and he is about right in that assessment. Through its deft and subtle script, combining present and flashback to great dramatic effect, fantastic acting, and a story of palpable reality Lonergan has delivered an intimate portrait of life and grief – a truly exceptional film.
Featured image: Nouse.