Manchester by the Sea seems to have very much been an under-the-radar film during production, with little in the way of trailers and advertising. It premiered at the Sundance film festival last year and initially only received a limited US release in November.
Written and directed by the somewhat hit-and-miss Kenneth Lonergan and with the film stars Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams and Lucas Hedges, it isn’t exactly a star-studded cast, even if they have performed admirably in other roles. But given the pretty anaemic offerings by many of the larger budget Hollywood films of 2016, could Manchester by the Sea deliver something more meaningful and interesting the likes of Dawn of Justice and X-Men: Apocalypse?
The story revolves around Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler, an unassuming janitor in Boston, Massachusetts and the turmoils he endures after the death of his brother (not really a spoiler, it happens in the opening few minutes of the film!). The official plot and trailer are below:
In Manchester by the Sea, the latest film from award-winning writer and director Kenneth Lonergan, the life of a solitary Boston janitor is transformed when he returns to his hometown to take care of his teenage nephew. The story of the Chandlers, a working-class family living in a Massachusetts fishing village for generations, Manchester by the Sea, is a deeply poignant, unexpectedly funny exploration of the power of familial love, community, sacrifice and hope.
After the death of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is shocked to learn that Joe has made him sole guardian of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Taking leave of his job, Lee reluctantly returns to Manchester-by-the-Sea to take care for Patrick, a spirited 16-year-old, and is forced to deal with a past that separated him from his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and the community where he was born and raised. Bonded by the man who held their family together, Lee and Patrick struggle to adjust to a world without him.
Manchester by the Sea brings a depth and pathos that is rarely seen in modern films. It explores ideas and relationships with an openness that is at times painful to watch, yet somehow matches this underlying poignancy with a surprising level of humour, helped by some excellent performances from the cast.
Casey Affleck’s performance is understated yet engaging. While he can be somewhat difficult to relate to at times, it is exactly this distance that makes his performance all the more intriguing as we learn about his past, his problems and his drives. His tendency to resort to a nonplussed default, that can at times be grating in other films, matches the understated style and tone of Manchester by the Sea, and despite the occasional subdued atmosphere, adds rather then detracts from the trials and tribulations of the film.
Lucas Hedges’ performance is the perfect counter-balance for Affleck’s more distant offering. He blends an outward confidence and at times joviality with an underlying pathos that complements the performances of the rest of the cast. His portrayal of Patrick Chandler is both engaging and to an extent likeable in a way that many other characters struggle to achieve. The interactions between Hedges and Affleck form a very strong foundation for the film in general, and their relationship allows the audience to maintain interest even during the slower sections of the film.
Michelle Williams’ on-screen time is very limited, and yet she too brings an emotional, intriguing and somewhat draining performance. She provides a relatability and warmth at times that others do not, and give an incredibly strong and raw emotional performance that belies how little she is actually in the film.
In other hands, and with a less capable cast, Manchester by the Sea could have become a turgid bore, but even with its slightly uneven pacing and melancholic undertones, it somehow manages to remain an interesting watch. The frequent humour of the film is much needed and certainly brings a levity without which the film could become intolerable. But the comedy never detracts from the over-aching storyline nor does it undermine the emotional engagement the film so carefully constructs.
The score blends perfectly with the plot and allows the film to maintain its connection with audiences even when there is little action on-screen. Lesley Barber brings a methodological melody to the visuals that encourage engagement from the viewer and perfectly accentuates the more nuanced emotions and scenarios the film explores.
There is very little to the story in terms of action, but the emotional progression brings a depth frequently missed by Hollywood’s recent offerings. The heartbreaking plot can be a little slow at times, but this more subdued pacing allows the audience to fully engage and explore the relationships and developments on-screen, helped by some excellent performances from the entire cast, Affleck, Williams and Hedges in particular.
While Manchester by the Sea is not necessarily a film that will become a firm favourite for rewatching, much like Room and Arrival, it is one that will stay with the audience long after the end credits roll.