Manchester by the Sea Review - One of the Best Films of the Year

Kenneth Lonergan, Lucas Hedges, and crew on the set of MANCHESTER BY THE SEA Photo credit: Claire Folger, Courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions

Despite its very British-sounding name, Manchester by the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan’s most recent film, is a very American film set squarely in working class America.  The locale of the title is, in fact, a picturesque true-life fishing village near Gloucester, Massachusetts, just north of Boston.  It’s home to two brothers whose tragic story reiterates the somber themes Lonergan explored in two earlier films: death and guilt and its impact on the ones left behind.

Kyle Chandler and Casey Affleck in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA. Photo credit: Claire Folger, Courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions


Kenneth Lonergan, a native New Yorker, began his career writing speeches for the EPA and TV commercials before turning to playwriting.  In 2000, after several off-Broadway plays, he wrote and directed his first film, You Can Count on Me, the moving story of a brother and sister whose adult lives are shadowed by the early deaths of their parents.   You Can Count on Me earned a number of awards.  Two years later he co-wrote the screenplay for Gangs of New York, and in 2011 he wrote and directed Margaret, a powerful story of an upper middle class teenage girl in NYC, who witnesses a terrible accident and feels she was partially responsible.   

Lucas Hedges in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA. Photo credit: Claire Folger, Courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions?


In Manchester by the Sea two brothers, Joe and Lee, run a small lobster boat which seems to provide them with a modest living.   Joe, the older of the two, has a teenage son, Patrick.   Lee, the younger brother, played by Casey Affleck, has two young daughters and a new baby.   When we first meet Lee he is the maintenance man for several apartment buildings, sweeping up, shoveling snow, unclogging toilets and getting into bar fights.  Clearly depressed, he seems to revel in punishing himself in every aspect of his life, including his tiny basement apartment.   Lee idolizes his older brother and is stunned when Joe dies from a heart attack.   At this point we think we know why Lee is depressed but our assumption is shattered midway in the film.   

Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA. Photo credit: Claire Folger, Courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions


Much of the film was shot in the town of Manchester-by-the-Sea and in a nearby community.   This is the charming coastal New England of postcards with wharves and fishing boats framing the harbor and small houses climbing the hills above.  It’s a working class town but every so often we see glimpses of older, grander houses that belong to a wealthier set.  This, along with the many bar scenes, seems to be Lonergan’s reminder of class differences.

Casey Affleck and Kenneth Lonergan on the set of MANCHESTER BY THE SEA Photo credit: Claire Folger, Courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions


Amid extraordinary acting by all, Casey Affleck’s role of the tortured younger brother, crippled by guilt, is the most powerful yet nuanced performances I have seen all year.  As Lee’s wife, Michelle Williams turns in an unforgettable performance, sure to be nominated for Best Supporting Actress, despite her meager screen time.  Patrick, Joe’s 16 year old son, is beautifully portrayed by Lucas Hedges, as he struggles to deal with his grief.  Even the most minor characters are well done.  The story itself is a classic American tragedy but very complex.  There are many flashbacks, a few of which may initially not be recognized as such.  The dialogue is sparse, as would be expected from New England working guys, but well written.  Pacing, slow at first, gathers momentum and power as the full story unfolds.   Cinematography is outstanding, capturing the atmosphere of coastal Massachusetts.  The images are often so elemental: sea, air, sky, and rock.  Many gorgeous scenes show the land and the houses from the water, rather than the reverse.  To me it represented Lee’s struggle to gain his footing.  Winter is a constant it seems, and not just the seasonal winter, but the winter of the heart.  The score is varied, with a combination of classical (Albinoni’s Adagio), pop, and choral, most elegiac, which is fitting for the story.  The story is summed up when Lee, near collapse, says “I can’t beat it”.  I loved Manchester by the Sea and think it one of the very best American films this year.  It reaches greatness, and as such, is memorable though not without tears.  For any real film lover, this is a must see.

 

Kenneth Lonergan on the set of MANCHESTER BY THE SEA Photo credit: Claire Folger, Courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions


I wish I had reviewed this film when I first saw it two weeks ago because it has unaccountably moved on from the Embarcadero and the Kabuki after only two weeks.  Now playing at the Marina (Chestnut St) and the Alamo Draft House in the city, although in the latter's smallest theater.  Strangely, playing more widely in the suburbs.   In Marin, at the Sequoia (Mill Valley) and the Fairfax.  See this on the big screen, not at home.  Screening time: 137 minutes.   Hope you had a great Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year, any or all.  My list of the best films will be posted soon.  Ciao, Ian

 

Michelle Williams in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA. Photo credit: Claire Folger, Courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions

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