Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck star in Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea (5/5)

Life, with all its idiosyncrasies, its moments of awkward clumsiness, its abject despair, heartbreak, humour and warmth is captured on film in Manchester by the Sea. It is both a movie about one man’s attempt to process unspeakable grief in quiet solitude and a broader treatise on archetypal masculinity and the frailty of the human condition.

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is drawn back to a small town outside Boston – the titular Manchester by the Sea – to deal with the death of his brother Kyle (Joe Chandler). There he is told his brother’s will sets out that he should become guardian to nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) since the teenager’s mother has long since been excommunicated from the family due to her severe alcoholism.

Lee hasn’t been told about the arrangement (“because he knew I would say no”) and he’s faced with relocating to Manchester or bringing Patrick – a well-adjusted ladies man who has everything going for him in the small fishing town – back to Boston where he works as an exploited handy man just barely making ends meet.

But for Lee it isn’t quite that simple. He is stymied from stepping up to the role by a dark pit of grief and despair that is tied inextricably to Manchester and the people of the area, not least his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) – a grief that he is daily struggling to stay above and which informs his every action.

Affleck delivers a tour de force performance as the doleful Lee, his natural stillness as an actor lending a weight to his character’s frequent silences that tell of his disconnect from the world around him. Consumed by his black introspection, he even tries to pass off care of his nephew on to another family – although it is a loving act all the same.

The film is given added emotional heft in the sparingly used Williams, whose presence is nonetheless potent in a supporting role here. A scene reuniting the two former lovers in their barely mentionable misery is sure to be one of the most emotionally powerful of the year, if not ever recorded on camera.

We miss more of the two of them interacting, especially given they’re on the form of their lives as actors in this film, which is nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, and has already seen Affleck win the Best Actor in a drama prize at the Golden Globes.

The past and present is threaded throughout Kenneth Lonergan’s film (he also wrote the screenplay and tends to the picture with clear care and affection). It cleverly fills in the blanks as we go, though a scene showing Lee and Randi’s fallout after the incident that unites them in grief is sorely lacking.

At some point at least two-thirds into the film I get the distinct impression I know where it should go, but Lonergan won’t take us there.

Rather than allowing Lee to find some redemption in the care of Patrick, his closest remaining relative, and a coming of age for Patrick in the realisation that his uncle needs support too, the writer/director lets both men carve their own separate paths.

It’s no happy ending – and we could really do with one given the world today – but it is perhaps truest to the lives these men lead.

Final Word: An intimate movie that tugs at the heartstrings. This is cinema that gives a powerful insight into the human condition while painting a portrait of one man’s insurmountable grief and his struggle to live with it.

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