Film review: Manchester by the Sea (2016)


Manchester by the Sea (2016)
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Writer: Kenneth Lonergan
Stars: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler


I knew nothing about Manchester by the Sea when my friend booked seats and walked me to the Holloway Odeon to see it – except, that is, that Casey Affleck was talked of as a hot Oscar contender and that the critics raved about it. Yep, this is a film honed and promoted with the gong ceremonies firmly in mind, so in my mind it should be judged accordingly.

First disappointment to a Manchester lad is that it is not set in the real Manchester and on the Manchester ship canal, but in the eponymous quaint and charming fishing town in Massachusetts. Too bad, I can just imagine it performed in a Manky accent: “Eh up chuck, where’s tha bin?” OK, yes I’m joking.

Frankly, Manchester by the Sea is not the best of titles for Kenneth Lonnergan’s feted film. A good one might be “1001 ways of communicating badly” (also a joke), though the French have a better way of putting it. Indeed, there was a fine French film with this title: Un Coeur En Hivera wintry heart.

This is because the main theme is how characters, notably Affleck’s Lee Chandler – Boston janitor who fights in pubs after a few beers, deal with repeated grief and loss, to which the answer is clear: shut it out, shut down emotions and realities, say little, do less. Fighting his demons is Lee’s life.

My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that the cinema seats were incredibly uncomfortable and left the audience with numb bums. Oh I see, you want to know about the film? Well, it is ravishing to look at, understated but over-hyped, has less to say than it thinks it has, has characters that are less than engaging and who mumble constantly into their metaphorical beards, rambles along with little apparent purpose, and fails to deliver much by way of dramatic punch in 2 hours 17 minutes. It goes nowhere much, says little, does nothing.

The essence of the film is simple: Chandler’s older brother dies suddenly, such that he travels 90 minutes to said MbtS, see the body and finds himself guardian of Joe’s son Patrick, the capability for which task he does not find within him.

In a series of flashbacks we learn his mistake led to his house burning down and his two young daughters being killed. At the police station Chandler attempted suicide by taking the gun of an officer, but was wrestled to the ground before he could succeed. He tries to help Patrick, including taking him to see his girlfriends (no moral probity!), and to see his paranoid mother (Gretchen Mol) – now with Matthew Broderick’s uptight and religious fiancĂ©.

Lee runs into his ex (Michelle Williams) who blubs and apologises for blaming him for the accident, though she is remarried and has a new child of her own. Eventually, Lee tells Patrick he has a new job in Boston and will leave him in the care of C J Wilson’s boat owner George. That’s pretty much it really; less an arc than as a downward spiral, and not even a proper tragedy.

Affleck delivers a slow-burn low-key performance but doesn’t win friends in quite the same way Lucas Hedges’s Patrick succeeds, but the pacing of the film is not Affleck’s fault. There is an awful lot of time devoted to the camera cringing as the characters struggle with what to say and usually fail. It is not an eloquent silence.  To be fair, there are moments of dry humour to be found in Lonnergan’s script, if you can hear them and have not fallen asleep, but they do not compensate for the lumpen exchanges in which precisely nothing is spoken, verbally or in any other way.

I’m fully aware a lot of people disagree with me, and they are welcome to their views – including my companion, who thought it “powerful.” I’m simply being honest when I say it did not hold my attention or inspire any emotional response in me. The fact is, you shouldn’t be left feeling flat from an Oscar-worthy movie, period.