Review: Manchester by the Sea

Lonergan displays the wisdom to leave unseen that which cannot be spoken in this quiet masterpiece of emotional pain. Truly beautiful.

A master of quiet emotion played out in grandly small scope, thankfully we did not have to wait quite as long for Kenneth Lonergan’s Oscar-contender third film Manchester by the Sea as we did after the torturous route to cinemas of his critically divisive second offering Margaret.

Burdened with unspeakable loss, Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a Boston-based janitor tending to the daily dramas of a claustrophobic, snow-bound apartment block that’s home to both admirers and aggressors. Locked away emotionally, he pays little heed to either, floating dislocated through life barring occasional explosions of unheeded aggression, most commonly erupting at the local dive bar.

Hauled out of his silent reverie by a phone call summoning him home, the Manchester of the title, Lee is less shocked by the heart attack death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) than he is by the will calling on him to be legal guardian of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges).

An intense portrait of grief and human consequence, Lonergan, as with his previous work, is wise enough to twist the screw just enough while easing it with a salve of morbid humour. Affleck has able assistance as the gruffly taciturn straight man to Hedges’ smart aleck teenager, gamely juggling two girlfriends and a snappy tongue.

Lonergan’s dialogue dances nimbly as the pair of bruised souls spar together with the sort of blunt force trauma that only family can muster, all the while gently nursing a love neither can really put words to, even on icy fishing trips. Unlikely room-mates, theirs is a fantastic double act as they rattle around the family home, with Patrick’s alcoholic mother out of the picture, begrudgingly organising Joe’s postponed funeral (the ground is frozen solid) and each other’s private lives.

An intelligent film about home and family and what that means, the mordant levity of these scenes are layered over a much deeper, older pain at the heart of Lee’s broken past, with Lonergan playing a long game revealing the real reason for the collapse of his marriage to Michelle Williams’ Randi. As with Margaret, one simple move amongst countless similar moments can have devastating consequences. Williams, in a small but weighty role, all but steals the film from Affleck in one harrowing collapse.

Lonergan has the wisdom to allow subtle symbols tell entire stories, leaving us far more bereft than many overwrought tragedies, with Jody Lee Lipes’ pastoral cinematography the perfect accompaniment, a warm breath on frost.

It is a real shame, then, that the only misstep in this beautifully muted drama is the wildly inappropriate score by Lesley Barber. Its crass choral and classical interruptions are like a sledgehammer to glass, at its most awful in the almost ruination of a critical cop shop scene.

This strange stumble aside, Manchester by the Sea deserves the awards season buzz it is attracting in a strong field, and hopefully Lonergan can maintain this pace.

Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords