I often find it incredible how apparently relatively simple stories of everyday folk and their lives can have such depth and underlying meaning.
In many ways, Manchester By The Sea (MBTS), is one such story.
Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, brother of Joe (Kyle Chandler), a fisherman from Manchester, Massachusetts – the town in which the brothers had grown up – whose sudden death from a pre-existing heart condition has left his brother Lee in a predicament. Whilst attempting to sort out arrangements for the funeral, and his brother’s estate and general affairs, he’s shocked to discover that according to his brother’s will, he is to become the legal guardian of his son, Patrick (played by the younger, Ben O’Brien, and more prominently at the age of sixteen, by Lucas Hedges).
This is unwelcome news for Lee, who, whilst having great affection for, and a strong bond with his late brother’s son, feels that he is wholly incapable of performing such a role.
For Lee is a deeply troubled and broken man. A janitor, living alone in a his Boston bedsit, going through the motions of life and doing whatever it is that he needs to do each day in order to forget his past. It’s a past that has rendered him aloof, incommunicative and somewhat volatile; a shell of the man he once was.
MBTS slowly recounts Lee’s story by way of a series of flashbacks interwoven with the present, revealing in the process his not inconsiderable hurt and sufferance. It’s a piece in which his character is very gradually exposed by way of what are at times painfully-stunted interactions with friends, family and strangers.
Lee’s sudden return to the town of his birth comes as an unexpected surprise to those who had once known him or indeed known of him, and is the catalyst for much consternation, voiced in that typically small town fashion – through secretive whispers or mumbled disapproval. It seems that a dark cloud of infamy now follows Lee wherever he goes.
Michelle Williams, is predictably wonderful as Lee’s heart-broken ex-wife, Randi, but it’s Affleck who steals the show, brilliantly portraying a man whose past clearly continues to haunt his present, displaying extremes of awkward, self-imposed introversion only to counter them with sudden bursts of predominantly alcohol-fuelled aggression, lashing out indiscriminately as some kind of emotional release or coping strategy.
MBTS is a very nuanced piece; at once tragic, emotional, heart-felt and cathartic, full of subtle detail and refreshingly real dialogue. It’s also a piece positively teeming with memorable scenes, some of the most poignant of which are brought to life – to extraordinarily emotional and powerful effect it should be noted – through the use of largely dialogue-free orchestral montages, played out to the strains of George Frederick Handel, and the like.
Affleck’s affecting performance will no doubt engrain itself in your head, whilst it’s a safe bet to suggest that the film, by way of its subtle, considered approach to what is at times particularly weighty subject matter, will entrench itself firmly in your heart.
Director Kenneth Lonergan has created a wonderfully honest observational piece that’s not afraid to admit that there isn’t always a solution to everything, and that sometimes the best we can hope for is just to learn how to cope with our past, no matter how unfair or traumatic it may well have been for us. Sometimes just accepting who we are and what we’ve become, can be victory enough.
Justifiably spoken of as an awards contender, Manchester By The Sea is an instant classic.