Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, only his third feature in fifteen years, arrived in Australia garlanded with award nominations and justified praise from overseas reviewers. It is an uncompromising piece of work that resists the temptation to cosy up to us as its often-daunting story unfolds. This doesn’t mean that it’s depressing – rather, it squarely faces from the emotional and character challenges it sets itself, while also featuring some sharply comic moments.
The film seems to have been shot entirely on location in Massachusetts, and mainly in the seaside town of Manchester, even down to interiors such as the bar where the protagonist lets fly, which gives the film a wonderful look of authenticity. Not that this would be enough to sustain our interest over two-and-a-quarter hours if the locations weren’t superbly used to distinguish the social layers at work in the film.
Above all, it is the shots of the ocean – the backdrop for some of the crucial action – that stay with us. The images of calm waters and the serene views of the town from the sea help reinforce our sense of lives being lived in disarray, and suggest that the characters wouldn’t have far to look if they chose to draw on this serenity – and, without giving anything away, I’d say that Lonergan had something like this in mind as he constructed his story.
The film opens on a vast seascape backed by soothing music, and then moves in on a fishing boat. Fishing is the town’s main industry, and on this boat is a little boy mucking around happily with the man who is looking after him while his father Joe (Kyle Chandler) helms the boat. The man proves to be Joe’s brother Lee (Casey Affleck), who seems a cheerful enough character. But then the film cuts to a snowy street scene in which an unsmiling Lee, as janitor/handyman of an apartment block. Lonergan shows a nice comedy touch in vignettes that depict Lee dealing with stroppy or merely tedious tenants.
But there’s more at stake here: these scenes, and a subsequent one in which his boss reprimands him for his rudeness, are the start of our understanding of Lee. Something has happened since our first glimpse of him on the boat. He is essentially a loner, perhaps a depressive, and is clearly given to bursts of explosive rage. We will gradually come to understand what has brought him to this point in his life, though Lonergan resists spelling things out in a simplistic manner.
Lee’s dour approach to life (dour, apart from the couple of times when he uses his fists) is about to be disrupted. Joe, the brother he has loved, has died suddenly, and Affleck deals brilliantly with the way this uptight, melancholy character responds. There’s clearly grief, but unlike other friends and relatives he can’t express this freely. And it’s not only the death that disrupts his life: he finds that Joe has named him as guardian of the now teenaged Patrick (Lucas Hedges), a role he feels utterly unprepared for. It was one thing to muck around on the boat with the youngster, but Patrick is now a teenager with a ripe line in four-letter talk and a couple of girlfriends, of whom he has expectations.
At the heart of the film is the relationship that develops between Lee and Patrick. The teenager is not about to make life easy for his uncle, and the film is observant and ultimately touching in the way it depicts Lee’s attempts to do the job his late brother has landed him with. Lonergan steers clear of all sorts of predictable sentimentality and easy comedy; it’s a fractious business for both these guys, each making some effort but also hanging on to his own ways when possible. It all gets satisfyingly complicated, too, by Patrick’s mother, a divorced former alcoholic now partnered by the church-going Jeffrey (Matthew Broderick), and Lee’s ex-wife (Michelle Williams), who in their separate ways contribute to the texture of a rich film concerned seriously with serious matters of human life.
The film is superbly acted, especially by Affleck, who never puts a foot wrong by playing for audience sympathy, and Hedges, whose teenager is a person, not a stereotype. Above all, Lonergan maintains the most rigorous tonal control. Manchester by the Sea leaves plenty behind, effortlessly showing how a long film can hold our attention by counting on our willingness to engage with the lives put before us. •