Arts Review, Movies
Manchester by the Sea
Kenneth Lonergan, director and writer
Starring: Casey Affleck (Lee), Michelle Williams (Randi), Lucas Hedges (Patrick, Joe’s son), Kyle Chandler (Joe, Lee’s brother), Gretchen Mol (Elise), Kara Hayward (Silvie), Matthew Broderick (Rodney)
Watching the tough but compassionate drama Manchester by the Sea, with its emphasis on working class people trying to achieve equanimity in their lives, it’s hard not to think that Canadian filmmakers should take note of the tone and pacing of this beautifully wrought film. The setting and time of the year also contributes to the sense that this could be a Canadian production. Manchester by the Sea is a small town in New England and most of the story takes place in a very snowy winter. The men spend evenings drinking in bars, watching hockey games after work. Sound familiar?
In the film, Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, who is working as a janitor in Quincy, Massachusetts (very near Boston) when he receives a call from his New England hometown, Manchester by the Sea. His brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died and, quite quickly, Lee discovers that he’s been named the guardian of his teenaged nephew Patrick. It’s a role that clearly makes him uncomfortable. In fact, he nearly panics when he hears it.
Affleck’s performance and Kenneth Lonergan’s writing and direction set up audience expectations. We realise that something terrible has happened to turn Lee into someone with dead eyes, wound up so tight that his only release comes when he provokes barroom fights.
If Manchester by the Sea was only about Lee and his silent suffering, it would be a very difficult to see. Luckily, there’s Patrick, the nephew, and he’s one feisty character. He plays on the hockey and basketball teams, has two girl friends, plays in a band, and has lots of friends in high school. At one point, Patrick even tries to set Lee up with the single mother of one of his girlfriends, telling him confidently “this could be good for both of us.” Sadly, it’s all too clear that Lee isn’t up for small talk, let alone love affairs.
Lonergan has structured the film in a style that resembles stream-of-consciousness—but without a singular point-of-view. Past and present merge easily, allowing us to see Lee as a happier younger man, married to a beautiful blonde, Randi (Michelle Williams), with three young children. In numerous scenes, we encounter Joe, the now deceased brother and get a sense of his brusque but caring ways with Lee and Patrick.
Manchester by the Sea slowly leads to an unexpected climax. There’s a scene where Randi and Lee, now long divorced, see each other on the street. Randi has a new baby and wants to talk to Lee, to make amends for brutal things she said to him after a terrible tragedy had befallen their marriage. Michelle Williams is wonderful here, expressing herself with a pure, intimate clarity. And Casey Affleck’s Lee can’t respond. It’s a moment that makes the movie, one that people will be talking about for years. Few films ever reach a point as fine as that one.
Manchester by the Sea is a modern American tragedy. Lee never had the high hopes and intense desires of the great American individuals of the past: he is no Gatsby or Ahab. He’s a man who wanted a simple life and it was denied him. Fitzgerald had it right nearly one hundred years ago: “In America, there are no second acts.” For Lee, that’s the sad and terrifying truth.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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