TWIM Reviews: Manchester by the Sea

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (STUDIOCANAL/AMAZON)

Dir, Script. Kenneth Lonergan

Cast: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges

Plot: A story of grief, guilt and most likely the Gallaghers…no, wrong Manchester.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I saw this film early through ODEON Screen Unseen a week and a half ago – Manchester by the Sea opens in UK cinemas nationwide on January 13th.

Manchester by the Sea is one of those films that is frighteningly real. Movies are dramatic by design, full of big stunts and big effects, but the new movie by Kenneth Lonergan takes away all of the trimmings. And the meat. Only the bones remain; Manchester by the Sea is so devoid of stylistic flares that its like looking through a perfectly transparent window, and as the ten-thousand-dimensional characters begin to compel you to the panels you realise that the window got taken out three days ago, and you fall through and face-plant into the nicely trimmed hedges and well-fertilised soil. Manchester makes you realise, through its uber-realistic everything, right down to the camera movement, that nearly all movies are still detached as involving as they can be – here its as if you are sitting at the dinner table with Casey Affleck, having collective flashbacks with Casey Affleck, even assisting him as he shits. Positioning an audience like that is always a risk – nobody wants to be made that uncomfortable, and sometimes you can cross the line into reality too much, and you lose sight of the fact you’re in a movie theatre at all. Manchester By The Sea has truly brilliant writing, truly brilliant acting, truly brilliant direction – but this one didn’t hit me like I expected it would. I feel like I should clarify that what I’m about to write is in the full knowledge that this is my personal take on the film, and that yours may be vastly different – if it hits you in the right way, you think Manchester By The Sea is an unbelievable film, and to all those who have maybe already seen it or are planning to due to its colossal Oscar buzz, then nothing I’m about to say is a condemnation of the film, but rather what I felt in that moment. To my mind, Manchester By The Sea‘s exploration of grief is too constructed, and feels like it belongs as a work of theatre deserving of performance on a stage with circle seating and matinee performances – however, for as good as this is, Manchester By The Sea for me does not work as a piece of cinema specifically.

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This makes even more sense when you see that writer-director Kenneth Lonergan started out as a playwright, and Manchester by the Sea is, without doubt, the best stage play I have seen this year. But a stage play doesn’t translate as is – and there’s plenty of times where I felt like I was in the theatre, and not watching a movie at all. The problem begins with the visuals – Lonergan’s direction is spot-on when it comes to the mood, an all-encompassing quiet tranquillity, but his camera unfortunately forgets to move whatsoever. Once the shots are set up (and they are lovely shots, framed with real class), its as if Lonergan’s cinematographer just fell asleep and let the camera . While that adds to the realism Manchester by the Sea is so obviously trying (and most definitely succeeding) to achieve, I don’t think it works cinematically. Now this is totally my opinion, although, what else does this blog exist for, but there’s a reason the last word of its title is ‘movie’, and that’s because a movie is supposed to MOVE. If I want to see Manchester by the Sea, which is for the record a brilliant piece of drama, I would have preferred to see it on the stage. Saying that, as a cinema experience it is refreshing to see a film of this nature. It’s the least narcissistic movie I’ve maybe ever seen, focusing only on the story without any ego-driven distraction, and it allows the performances and characters, of a depth simply not seen in cinema every day, even every year, to come through vividly.

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It all comes from Lee Chandler, a superbly defined character that has more depth than a hundred blockbuster leading men – the way his character is revealed to us is like a drip-feed, Lonergan giving us more and more details of Lee’s self through conversation and action. The only time there’s even any inconsistency in Lonergan’s direction and Lee’s character is during a major flashback sequence that feels a little bit too melodramatic, although its done with such skill by the actors that Manchester just about gets away with it. The man playing Lee helps as well: a career-best performance by Casey Affleck that looks to be a surefire bet for an Academy Award for the time being. I can promise you that he’ll have earned it. The way I personally distinguish a good performance from a great one is how much an actor adds to the character as written on the page – Lee Chandler is written so well by Lonergan, with so many dimensions to him Rose Tyler is stuck in one of them, that its scarcely believable to think he could be added to, and yet Casey makes him even richer and deeper than before. It’s not showy either: unrelentingly bleak and permanently grieving, Affleck’s performance is nuanced and as dignified as any you have ever seen. He’s closed-off for, as we see, incredibly valid reason, and watching him constantly on the precipice of breaking his already fraught illusion of control as events seem to threaten the quiet routine he’s created for himself is incredibly compelling. The conversations with the few people he talks to out of obligation rather than choice are the best indicators of Lee as a character, and Affleck’s awkward demeanour and weak stance say just as much as Lonergan’s razor-sharp and impactful dialogue.

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His script, however theatrical it may be, is utterly stupendous – easily the early front-runner for my favourite script of the year, and most likely earning Kenneth Lonergan a trip up to the Dolby stage at the end of February as well. I do have issues with it: a lot of the sub-plots feel narratively irrelevant, but they provide a lot of colour and make the world this story inhabits have even greater clarity, and as Manchester is a character study more than anything it can be overlooked. Also, this movie is as bleak as Jack Kerouac in a black raincoat on a cold and damp December day, and there isn’t a whole lot of let-up either, so Manchester (with its runtime of something like 2 hours and 20 minutes, a marathon of a film by any definition) can feel like a major grind at times. However, what else are we to expect from a film concerned with grief? Lonergan captures the feeling of small-town life and of ordinary people in Manchester, going through tough times personally without their obstacles having to be Earth-bound asteroids or Earth-sized superweapons. Every supporting character is another unique individual that is greatly watchable; their brilliance comes performed by actors doing superb work under Lonergan’s direction. Lee’s ex-wife is a feisty yet (like everybody in this film seems to be) tragic Michelle Williams, who is absolutely superb in the role of a woman trying to blank out old times but struggling in her new life – she’s been nominated for Oscars before, and her vivid work here should see her receive the honour again. But perhaps even more impressive is young Lucas Hedges, who plays a young man made fatherless who Lee is forced to become the legal guardian of – Hedges announces himself here as an acutely capable performer with a confident display, and he not only delivers Lonergan’s extraordinary dialogue terrifically and bounces off of the stupendous Affleck, but the pair chart the way their relationship develops perfectly – here’s hoping the young star gets many more roles in the future.

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But for all of my praises, something in the back of my head still eats away at me when thinking about Manchester by the Sea. While I will admit that this film is a brilliant piece of drama and a terrific character study to boot, its a film I couldn’t quite crack. I still can’t quite work out why – Manchester is a piece of drama that I respect with everything I have, and yet I felt more like I was having a film thrown at me rather than me being able to dive into it. And while the characters are superbly well-rounded and meaty, I didn’t really like any of them – I was impressed by their quality, but the story never quite invested me, and felt more like a collection of brilliant scenes rather than a driving narrative. Then again, while I personally may not have been struck by Manchester by the Sea on an emotional level, the person to my left spent most of the 140 minute run-time leaking like a bucket that’s been through the Vietnam war and back, as did many others – maybe I’m just a heartless cynic? I definitely recommend this one though – its as good an exploration of guilt and grief as you may ever see, and as theatrical as it may be there’s plenty to stick your teeth into. My issue simply remains that I couldn’t justify why it was a movie, or why I was supposed to care about the story – I saw it, and I saw it for all of its quality, but I didn’t feel it in my gut, and I confess that through some of the more protracted scenes that I was bored a fair bit, and I just couldn’t see where the plot was going to actually do something rather than let things flow. Scenes on their own can be worth their weight in gold but without much really happening it can be easy to lose sight of where a movie is going, and that happened a fair few times for me. I think Affleck is utterly utterly brilliant, as are Williams and Hedges who also impress enough to justify potential Oscar love, and Lonergan succeeds completely in creating a really spectacular piece of stage drama. But in a sense it feels just a little bit too staged. In my opinion, if you want to spend 2 and a half hours of my life trying to move me, move the camera first.

RATING: 2.5/4

BEST WATCHED: At a matinee performance at a London theatre.

Manchester by the Sea opens in UK cinemas nationwide on January 13th.

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