Film review by Jason Day of Manchester By the Sea, starring Casey Affleck as a troubled divorcee who is ‘gifted’ the chance to look after his teenage nephew, following his brother’s death.
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Years after he accidentally kills hi three young children in a house fire, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) finds himself as the legal guardian of his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) after his older brother (Kyle Chandler) dies of a heart condition. Despite being emotionally shut-down since his own tragedy, he and his young charge slowly come to terms with the situation life has dealt them as they get used to living with each other.
Already the receipt of much acclaim by critics on both sides of the pond, this admittedly finely nuanced examination of family dynamics in the wake of two episodes of tragically early deaths is as purposely difficult to warm to as its complex main character.
It is also an incredibly, painfully slow film to start – at least 40 minutes elapses before the drama finally cracks into life. Were it not for Affleck’s finely muted performance and some noteworthy humour in the script, the film would have been a leaden, tiring effort to watch.
It did make me wonder about what drove Lonergan to write this. It’s an original screenplay, so must presumably have a personal connection to him – not many writer/directors would craft so minutely observed a slice-of-life picture if it is based on another’s experiences.
This explains how the characters on-screen so easily come across as actual living, breathing people. Lonergan has committed serious time to making this as ‘realistic’ and ‘normal’ a film as possible.
One could say at this point that the film is boring – it’s a slow-burner as I mentioned above but you will gather that from just the trailer, with frequent use of extended pauses that would make Harold Pinter dance in his grave. There are moments that Lonergan lets hang in the air; the film is full of these deafening, awkward silences.
But it also allows the audience time to absorb these people. Not just their words, but the looks of anguish, pain, excitement and confusion they give.
The minutae of life is thus built up in layers and the story becomes gradually more absorbing. The drawn out feel to the film lets the director mesh performance and tone together perfectly. There’s no rush to get to Manchester and when we get there, we afforded a fly on the wall stay-over.
There is a chill in the air to this film, and the edge in the direction matches Affleck’s clearly depressed if not suicidal character. His failure as a husband is compounded in an uncomfortably comic scene when his wife’s (Michelle Williams) hospital gurney is mishandled by the paramedics who can’t get it into the ambulance. She gasps on an oxygen mask from smoke inhalation and stress as her dead children are brought out in a body bag, the husband hangs impotently by her side.
Apart from this scene, the humour in a script that has the odd nugget of amusing observation and killer one-liners is correctly used. Hedges, twinkling in support as the randy nephew, grasps them with both hands.
Williams’ teary ex-wife adds to a colourful supporting cast whose timing (to hang on the achingly long pauses the lead character subjects them to) is impeccable throughout.
But Affleck deserves a few award nods at the very least for managing to convey so much with a a character who, on paper, is a desert of a personality (he has already scooped a Golden Globe). This is perfectly in keeping with an essentially barren film about redemption and forgiveness amidst boat repairs, but its the measure of an actor that he holds your attention, even through those gaps. Timing, you see, is everything.
Cast & credits
Director: Kenneth Lonergan. 137mins. The Affleck-Middleton Project/B Story/Big Indie Pictures/CMP/K Period Media/Pearl Street Films.
Producers: Lauren Beck, Matt Damon, Chris Moore, Kimberley Steward, Kevin J. Walsh.
Writer: Kenneth Lonergan.
Camera: Jody Lee Lipes.
Music: Lesley Barber.
Sets: Ruth De Jong.
Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Kyle Chandler, Michelle Williams, Gretchen Mol.