Manchester by the Sea

Directed by Kenneth Lonergan

January is the time to see a film like Manchester by the Sea, whose very name, to an English rather than American viewer, holds within it the concept of damp, cold colourlessness. Manchester-by-the-Sea is however a pleasant little seaside town in New England used very much as a holiday bolthole by Bostonians, something more like St Ives perhaps than the great northern metropolis we English might need to expunge from our sensibility. And yet – it’s not an inappropriate mindset to set off in for this sorrowful wintry tale of human frailty in the face of the random bloody awfulness of life.

Lee (Casey Affleck) is a janitor with the unresponsive reactions and starved faced and mien of one who has little stake in any kind of happiness. The news that his beloved brother is dangerously ill sends him dashing back to his hometown Manchester by the Sea where he finds himself in charge of his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), something he is unprepared for and feels ill-equipped to manage. As the two work through their grief in very different ways we gradually learn in flashbacks the devastating history that has made Lee what he is.

It’s hard at the moment to think of any American director who can match Lonergan’s ability to portray blue-collar life – neither hard-scrabble nor upwardly aspirational, just ordinary people who live in small houses and do important but unnoticed jobs like Lee or Mark Ruffalo’s bus driver in Lonergan’s previous masterpiece Margaret. Few others can quite manage, either, the awkwardnesses of ordinary conversations, the sudden random over-boilings of emotions into raging arguments, personified here in a cameo by Lonergan himself as an irascible passer-by, whose intervention in an argument warns us all to be careful how we judge other people’s actions. Lee’s buttoned-up mild manner occasionally erupts into these hugely disproportionate bursts of aggression, and it’s down to Affleck’s amazing performance that we see these, as well as his floundering in his new responsibilities, with empathetic eyes. Excellent too is Lucas Hedges, totally credible as a normal jack-the-lad teenager trying to cope with sudden bereavement and changing circumstances.

Between them, it’s an affecting and authentic portrait of grief and its sometimes unexpected effects (the first thing we see bringing out the misery in Patrick is some frozen chicken fillets). And it’s also about the common decency of people, from friends to hospital staff to the police dealing with the huge catastrophe of Lee’s earlier life (the most moving scene – because it’s so full of what you yourself want the reaction to be). And for this reason it’s a film that offers in spite of everything a sense of solace, of everything passing and easing, even the bad things, and life being in the end, kind of OK.

Seen at Tyneside Cinema Newcastle, January 2017

 

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