Thursday, 2 February 2017


Universal Pictures Australia

Although it is centred around grief -- past and present -- writer-director Kenneth Lonergan's latest film (and just his third after You Can Count On Me (2000) and Margaret (2011)) is by no means a downer. Leavened by an unassuming sense of humour, Manchester By The Sea is far funnier and not nearly as depressing as early word would have you believe. But it does begin with death.

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), an efficient but standoffish janitor in Boston, is called home upon the death of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler, seen in flashbacks). The death isn't a complete surprise to Lee: Joe had been diagnosed with a heart condition some years earlier. But the loss of his closest relative and strongest ally, not to mention a return to his home town of Manchester by the Sea, where his reputation is seemingly irredeemably tarnished, has the taciturn Lee even more cagey.

Lonergan doesn't reveal the reason for Lee's surly nature until the film's halfway point, which immediately explains his reticence to return home, and his further reluctance to become the legal guardian to his nephew, Patrick (an excellent Lucas Hedges).

It is the interplay between these two men that provides much of the humour in Lonergan's screenplay; Lee's reluctance to engage versus 16-year-old Patrick's 'it's all about me' attitude. Yes he's a self obsessed shit, but how much of that is par for the course adolescence and how much of it is grief? Like Lee, Patrick has also lost his best friend; his mother having abandoned the family some years ago.

There's an everyday-ness and a recognisable awkwardness to proceedings in Manchester By The Sea. Lonergan, who is also an esteemed playwright, captures perfectly the way people speak -- or don't -- and the humour, intentional or not, in the day-to-day minutiae and in the most unexpected of places.

Yet the film does have a heavy heart, embodied in Affleck's Lee and held together by his quietly powerful performance. He is its bruised but still beating heart. If less is more, then Affleck is giving 110 per cent as a man, so broken by what has happened to him before the film begins, that anything bad that happens to him afterwards is deserved, and anything good is rebuffed. Lee is prepared to take life's body blows. Or invite them: deliberately provoking bar brawls just in case the Universe forgets to punish him.

And as for Lee's guardianship of Patrick, is it a test? Redemption and a second chance at fatherhood, or potential for further heartbreak down the road? You can see Lee's internal struggle as the possibility of happiness is weighed up against the fear of eventual loss.

But despite its themes and revelations, and the one big scene for Michelle Williams, who plays Lee's ex-wife, now remarried and pregnant, which finally allows for some on-screen emoting late in the film (Williams, as fine as she is, doesn't land an emotional gut punch), Manchester By The Sea doesn't put you through the emotional wringer.

Lonergan's film, however, will grip your heart. Just how tightly will depend on your own experiences of love and loss.

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