Kenneth Lonergan’s long overdue return to writing and directing delivers a six-time Oscar nominated tale of loss, family and self-discovery. Manchester by the Sea follows Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a janitor living in a dreary one room flat who travails through life painfully alone before a significant event changes his life.
It is clear from the first moment we see Lee that he is deeply troubled and carrying a world of pain. Affleck’s performance, undoubtedly his best to date, is subtle but extremely powerful and gives Lee an incredible appeal and leaves the audience longing to know what lies behind his pain-filled eyes. His already troubled life takes a dramatic turn as he receives news that his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), has passed away. He’s also stunned with the news that the role of guardian of his sixteen year old nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), has been thrust upon him as he returns to his hometown of Manchester, Massachusetts.
Glimpses of Lee’s past are illuminated by flashbacks and we see him in a happier place with his three children and wife Randi (Michelle Williams). The use of colour is significant during these scenes as it contrasts to the present day, which is set in the freezing winter and grey dominates the frame. However, there is one flashback in particular that reveals a significant, heart-wrenching moment in Lee’s past and sheds light on his war against himself and the world, leaving him numb and empty.
Lee is emotionally crippled by his past and this proves to be one of the biggest appeals as to how he and Patrick learn to live together and deal with the grief of the death of Joe in their own different ways, yet find solace and comfort in each other in an extremely intricate way. The relationship between the two is fantastically portrayed and often provides comedic relief from what is ultimately a sombre and bleak tale. Both Affleck and Hedges give outstanding performances and fully deserve their Oscar nominations for best actor and best supporting actor respectively.
The symbolic cinematography is extremely effective and contributes to the development of the plot and characters; particularly the use of colour in the flashback scenes, the spacious framing during the scenes at sea representing the momentary relief Lee feels from the shores of the town that holds so many nightmares, and the distant grey, wintery landscape shots into nothing in particular – mirroring Lee’s outlook on life.
The film resists and challenges the common and saturated format of granting, and often forcing, closure to a story. The ending is open-ended and gives the film a genuine sense of authenticity and realism. The film’s non-linear plot also disregards convention and although it can be slow to develop, the flashbacks ensure the audience remains gripped for the entire 137 minutes by adding depth to the characters and revealing additional layers to the story.
Manchester by the Sea is a truly touching and relatable account of loss and grief. With outstanding performances by all under the expert directorial guidance of Lonergan, the film explores a web of intricate relationships, each with their own heartbreak, in an authentic and believable way.