Masterfully written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, and lead by a tour-de-force performance by Casey Affleck, Manchester By the Sea is a beautiful film about living with grief, forgiveness, and human connection.
Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a janitor at a Massachusetts tenement who is severely withdrawn, and appears to be living in a self-imposed exile. He avoids any and all connections with people, pointedly ignoring any attempts by others to engage in conversation. When his older brother dies of a heart attack, Lee returns to his hometown Manchester-by-the-sea, a place he left behind due to a tragedy so great that no one dares to speak of it. When he gets there he learns, much to his surprise, that his brother named him as the guardian of his teenaged son, Patrick.
As the the story unfolds in different timeframes we see the current Lee, solemn and brooding, juxtaposed with the past Lee who is jovial, warm, and almost boorishly gregarious. Affleck achieves a consistency between his characterisation of the younger and the current Lee which makes this transformation believable, and which probably wouldn’t have been possible in the hands of a lesser performer or a lesser director. His performance is nuanced and devoid of cliches like the thousand-yard-stare. It is quickly evident, from his stopped stance to the amount of energy he chooses to exert, that you are looking at someone who has resigned himself to living with grief.
Michelle Williams continues her run of astonishing performances here as Lee’s estranged wife Randi, injecting the screen with warmth and nearly breaking my heart. Kyle Chandler is wonderful as the older brother who is strong of mind but weak of heart, and Lucas Hedges nearly steals the film from Affleck in his role as Lee’s teenaged nephew Patrick, inhabiting the notoriously awkward space between childhood and adulthood. He is strong-willed yet vulnerable, completely self-centred but needing guidance from role models, who keep disappearing from his life.
The film did feel a little long, and I could have done with a bit more time spent with Randi and a little less with Patrick and his teen angst.
It is also surprisingly funny. Some of the humour comes at the most unexpected moments, born from the kind of awkwardness and miscommunication often experienced in real life but rarely captured so precisely on screen. It’s a testament to Lonergan’s skill as both a screenwriter and director that he is able to present these moments so truthfully and, given the themes of grief and loss, the film would have been a more laborious watch without them.