Reviewer: Freda Cooper
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Stars: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges, Matthew Broderick
LFF screenings 9th and 11th October 2016
Released 13th January 2017
As it approaches its half way point, this year’s London Film Festival has already set the bar extraordinarily high with the likes of ‘A Monster Calls’ and ‘La La Land’. And there seems to be little chance of a drop in standards, even if some of the titles are quieter propositions. Like ‘Manchester By The Sea’.
Lee Chandler (Affleck) works as the janitor for a group of apartment buildings in Boston. It’s a drudge of a job and his life isn’t much better. But it all changes when he receives a phone call telling him that his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died from a sudden heart attack. Lee is devastated enough by losing his brother, but when the contents of the will are revealed, he also finds out he’s been made guardian of Joe’s teenage son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), a young man with no plans to uproot to Boston and start a new life.
Which doesn’t sound like much of a plot. And it isn’t. Because this isn’t a film about pure narrative, but an emotional journey, one that takes time and where the end of the film gives just a tiny flicker of hope. It’s set against a New England fishing community, where Joe Chandler is the more responsible, more reliable and highly respected of the two brothers. In flashbacks, we see Lee’s life in the town, with wife Randie (Michelle Williams) and children, as well as Joe’s diagnosis with heart problems and his shaky relationship with wife Elise (Gretchen Mol). The two brothers are both involved in fishing, alongside George (C J Wilson), spending days out on the boat with Joe’s son Patrick, who is clearly being raised in the family tradition.
Those flashbacks are essential to understanding the background to the story, especially the reasons why getting Lee to talk is akin to banging your head on a brick wall. Kenneth Lonergan’s script encourages us to speculate further as we discover that he’s not liked in the town and his return to sort out Joe’s affairs isn’t in the least bit welcome. He’s taciturn, borderline rude and finds it impossible to have a conversation with anybody, even refusing general offers to socialise. In fact, the only time he comes out of his shell is when he goes to a bar, gets blinddrunk and picks a fight with whoever happens to catch his eye. It doesn’t matter who they are, he just wants to fight.
The reason is a tragic accident, which devastates Lee and Randie and destroyed their marriage. As the police point out at the time, he didn’t commit any legal offence, but he’s permanently consumed with guilt, despises himself and desperately wants to be punished. He might feel better if he was, and it’s an unexpected connection between the film and ‘A Monster Calls’.
All of which is why we are watching a man who never smiles, speaks almost in monosyllables and looks like he has all the miseries of the world heaped on his drooping shoulders. Becoming guardian to his nephew Patrick means he has to deal with other people but, initially, he still holds back. The teenager, on the other hand, seems to be holding up well under the circumstances – too well, as it turns out. Because the inevitable moment arrives when something small goes wrong at home and he completely breaks down. It’s just one example of Lucas Hedges’ impressive performance as a confident, articulate young man who is not afraid to speak the truth as he sees it. A stroppy teenager movie this is not.
This solemn and absorbing examination of guilt and grief is definitely an actor’s piece, and that actor is Casey Affleck, a solitary figure in the town where he was brought up and who, on the outside, seems to be his own worst enemy. He’s genuinely difficult to like but it’s a testament to Affleck’s performance that you still have some sympathy for him because the events in his past weren’t his fault – even if, as far as he’s concerned, they were. But Affleck doesn’t have it totally his own way. Kyle Chandler’s Joe is the brother was everything Lee wanted to be, but couldn’t. And there’s the quiet, almost omni-present C J Wilson as George, in a performance so credible and subtle that he looks like he genuinely belongs in the town. His look of shock and bewilderment after Joe’s death is coupled with embarrassed snuffles and it’s stand-out stuff.
If ‘Spotlight’ was the quiet film of 2016, ‘Manchester By The Sea’ looks set to take over that mantle in 2017. It’s unglamorous and unassuming but also a film that displays great depth, compassion and understanding. After its appearance at the London Film Festival, it’s released in the UK in January, which points towards an awards campaign. One that, in all likelihood, will focus on Affleck.