There are many scenes in Kenneth Lonergan’s latest film which stay with you long after you have left the movie theatre.
One in particular is played entirely without dialogue, with just Albinoni’s Adagio playing on the sound-track. This is a piece of music which has been often used in films but it sounds fresh and entirely appropriate – partly because it is played in its entirety, rather than the usual snippet.
The scene is set in a church; a service for a man who has died. The man is Joe Chandler, a fisherman in Manchester by the Sea – a small fishing village on the Massachusetts coast, north of Boston. His brother Lee – played by Casey Affleck – has organised the funeral. Casey Affleck is extraordinary throughout the film but this quiet scene nags at your soul. The howling winds and darkening shadows of tragedy play across his features; he shows little actual expression but nonetheless everything is visible in the dullness of his eyes, the flatness of his features, his unkempt briefly combed hair, his ill-fitting funeral suit. His ex-wife Randi, beautifully played by Michelle Williams in a minor but key role, turns up at the funeral, pregnant and with her new partner. She embraces Lee in silence and the terrible tragedy which they shared and which lies at the heart of this wonderful film steals across their features like a cold, grey sea creeps up a beach on a winter’s day.
Lee has been nominated by Joe as guardian for Joe’s 16 year old son, Patrick, a task which Lee, as a consequence of his own family tragedy, is un-prepared for and seeks to avoid and the film charts their uneasy and developing relationship while gradually teasing out the secrets, lies and sadnesses which lie beneath and behind this and every family. Patrick is played by newcomer Lucas Hedges and he gives a thoughtful, nuanced performance.
It is a small film – ordinary lives in a small town – with ordinary people buffeted by extraordinary events while living their ordinary lives. Lee has escaped from Manchester to Boston and is living in one room, working as a janitor for an apartment block, as he desperately seeks to punish himself by burying a past which he knows he can’t escape. But Joe’s death drags him back, to Manchester by the Sea and a life he doesn’t want to confront, a past he can’t escape from and responsibilities he has tried so hard to avoid. Lee’s journey to a sort of relationship with Patrick, stumbling into a sort of light – dull, grey and cloudy but a light nonetheless – gives the film its resonance and a downbeat but still slightly uplifting ending. There are many things left unresolved, not least Patrick’s relationship with his once (and still?) alcoholic mother who has moved away for reasons that are left unclear, and the film shows that there are no easy answers in life and sometimes there are no answers at all, there are just questions and more questions that hang and may even hang us if we let them.
Towards the end of the film Lee bumps into Randi on a street corner. She is pushing a buggy with her new baby and is with a friend. She asks her friend to carry on so she can talk to Lee. But Lee can’t and won’t talk; he mutters odd words, unfinished sentences, mumbles, shuffles, looks away while Randi breaks into tears and tries desperately to express her feelings. But after what feels like minutes they part; Lee can’t bear to be around her, his guilt has rendered him speechless and inarticulate.
There are ways in which it is similar to the first Jaws film. There is small town seaside America and local people living local lives of quiet desperation. There are families torn apart and torn back together. There is the faded palette of the season’s changing colours and the influence the weather has on our lives. There is no shark, at least not of the seaborne variety, but there are sharks nonetheless, as there are sharks in all lives that need to be fought and sometimes hopefully defeated. But sometimes the sharks win and devour us.
‘Masterpiece’ is often used as a description for art that is often anything but and indeed there are few films that even aspire, never mind achieve the quality of art but Manchester by the Sea is one that deserves the epithet as well as qualifying as a piece of art.
Lonergan has crafted a film of depth and profundity and he has coaxed a performance from Casey Affleck which will live long in the memory. ‘Oscar winning’ is an epithet often thrown at performances which don’t truly deserve it ‘ – Affleck’s is one performance that does.