Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea picked up critical acclaim across the globe last year including Oscars for Best Original Screenplay and Best Actor for lead Casey Affleck. The film explores grief and belonging in equal measure, from the extreme circumstances of loss right through to someone trying to find their way out of the darkness of an intensely-binding depression.
Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a handyman who lives alone in Boston and works day-to-day doing odd jobs in the blocks he’s servicing. It’s clear that he’s perfectly competent in the role but also enveloped in a deep numbness that means Lee is emotionally detached from the world around him. It’s shown early on that his only connection to sensation is drinking himself into a stupor and fighting with strangers, just to feel something. When he learns that his brother Joe (portrayed by the underrated Kyle Chandler) has died, he heads back to Manchester to tie up funeral arrangements and other matters.
Though some films in this genre would follow a simple, certain path, Manchester by the Sea plays with time much like Arrival does in terms of editing. While not as extreme in a final reveal as the aforementioned Amy Adams film, here Lee’s past slowly unravels as the story is moulded in and out of flashbacks regarding a life we haven’t yet witnessed. Early on we see that Lee is a hard-working man with three young children and married to Randi, played by Michelle Williams. Despite his love for a drink, they appear to have an understanding and everyday relationship that’s affectionately depicted by both of them. The only thing we don’t know is why Lee is in such a depressed state today, and what happened for him to become this way.
Upon returning to the small town, Lee also has the task of becoming the guardian for his brother’s son Patrick, played by Lucas Hedges, and is surprised to learn this was his brother’s plan after he’d been diagnosed with a degenerative heart disease. While Lee struggles trying to processe how he’s going to look after a teenage boy who’s Dad has just died, as Patrick’s mother is estranged, we are suddenly taken into one of the most powerful, emotionally overwhelming sequences I’ve seen in years, especially as there’s no real build-up to revealing why Lee is so disconnected.
The scenes with Casey and Michelle show us their unbelievable talent at capturing the characters they’re portraying and passing on the deep attachment to the audience. You truly feel why such a shock on any life would change everything around it from that day forward and while I talk somewhat cryptically, if you haven’t seen it yet, then it’s important to come to this moment unexpectedly. Everything that happens in one night can shape the rest of your reality and if it’s somewhat idle and simple, then it’s even more influential as an outcome.
Manchester by the Sea is a story of absolution alongside an unintentional search for a resolution to heartbreak you don’t know how to solve. Lonergan shoots it primarily in the winter where the snowy, grey and rainy skies form a palette that reflects the feelings of those effected lives. The feint hope of colour comes in forms of happier memories, and a rather amusing story of Patrick trying to get laid, and a conclusion that aims for a better place. While the light is dim and occasionally desperate, the sunlight is highlighted by it glistening across the snake-skin sea and towards a more positive possibility.
While Manchester by the Sea is Lonergan’s focused individual character study of Casey’s character, it’s also the driving natures of Lee and Randi’s tragic sub-story that underpins much of his journey. Michelle Williams is such a force that it’d be hard not to feel something for them, or at least try to understand what they’ve gone through. Lonergan has created a movie that tries to understand the incredible pressure of loss and what it can do to anyone but with Affleck giving the performance of a lifetime; it is heart-breaking but strikingly realised.
Special Features: Director’s Audio Commentary, Deleted Scenes, ‘Emotional Lives’ Featurette
Manchester by the Sea is available on Digital Download from 8 May, and on Blu-ray, DVD and On Demand from 15 May 2017 – Order it here.