If you’ve listened to this week’s podcast (if you haven’t, you should do so now), this review will come as no surprise to you, as I spoke a little about the film and my thoughts on it shortly after my first viewing.
Manchester by the Sea stars Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler, a handyman struggling with deep depression, as he grapples with his personal demons and the recent loss of his brother and subsequent custody of his 16-year-old nephew (Lucas Hedges). It also stars Michelle Williams and Randi, Lee’s ex-wife, and Kyle Chandler as Joe, Lee’s late brother, seen throughout the film during flashbacks.
It’s a film that closely examines grief; both in our ability as humans to live with it, and the many different ways in which we process (or refuse to process) it. The subject matter is pretty visceral, and it’s a very raw experience in many ways. Anyone who has lost a loved one will likely find it difficult to stomach in places, but equally, it’s a poignant healing opportunity – despite Lee being a fictional character, witnessing his difficulty to come to terms with tragedy gives us a sense of acknowledgment. After all, Manchester by the Sea is a tragedy of the everyday sort, making it both mundane and an artistically outstanding piece of cinema.
Thematically, it’s a remarkable film, but it’s also excellently put together. Its flashback scenes deliver added context where needed, hashing out the protagonist’s increasingly tragic past, bringing us to understand more fully what drives him. It’s something of a slow burn, but it’s never too slow, instead running at an even and consistent pace, drip-feeding context as the present-day story continues to develop.
Manchester by the Sea was filmed on location in the town of the same name, as well as in numerous other nearby Massachusetts towns and along the coast, owing the film an added sense of reality. Day-to-day life in these towns (particularly among the fishing communities) was incorporated into the script, as well as feeding into the film’s main characters and their motivations and overall characterization. There’s a reluctance to emote in Affleck’s performance credited to this, and it’s an accurate representation of how many people struggle to recover from their own grief.
As I mentioned in this week’s podcast (seriously, go and listen to it), Manchester by the Sea also manages to incorporate a delicate and unexpected sense of humor into its story. It’s everywhere: in casual interactions between nephew and uncle, in asides between its adolescent characters, occasional jokes between friends, and even in the boorishness of males when confronted by an angry spouse. There’s a realism to the comedy that makes it feel natural, yet still somehow surreal – these characters, in the face of insurmountable grief, can still laugh, can still live, and still continue to be themselves – and that’s what Manchester by the Sea does so remarkably well: it reflects real life in a way that film rarely dares to. It’s not afraid to contradict itself at times, and it’s not afraid to expose the side of grief that we don’t often acknowledge.
Lastly, I’d just like to highlight the film’s actors. Casey Affleck delivers a masterful performance, deftly using subtlety alongside occasional outbursts of grief, anger, and general frustration. Lee Chandler feels as real as you or I, and that’s really a testament to Affleck’s ability to bring the character to life. Williams and Hedges are also outstanding in their respective roles, each dealing with their own loss(es) in their own ways, while simultaneously trying to understand Lee’s closely-guarded emotional state. Each character plays off of one another in a way that, again, lends the film an added air of realism, and it only highlights just how powerful and poignant Manchester by the Sea really is.
Summary: A tragedy that pulls no punches whatsoever, Manchester by the Sea will transport you to a very real world of heartache and strife, but not without giving you just a little hope for humanity’s ability to endure. It’s filled with excellent performances by an incredible cast, and it perfectly captures the profound effect that grief can have on us as humans.
Highlights: The slow building of context around Affleck’s character, along with the realization of exactly what has caused him to close off from the world, is done with sensitivity and refusal to sugar-coat which makes for a hard-hitting piece of film.