No – it’s not set in Manchester and yes – Casey Affleck is Ben Affleck’s brother. Clement Jochem reviews the culmination of these revelations, in the form of the multi-award winning picture, Manchester by the Sea.
Before Manchester by the Sea, which incidentally has earned him an Oscar nod, Kenneth Lonergan has had a rather average career. He dabbled in indie films with You Can Count On Me, while he also co-wrote the more high profile Gangs of New York. Now, Lonergan has written and directed Manchester by the Sea… and it will very likely launch him to new heights.
I’ll admit, my lack of geographical knowledge showed when it took me half the film to understand that the setting is NOT Manchester in Britain. Instead, the action takes place in a port called Manchester, a little over an hour away from Boston. We meet Lee, who comes back to Manchester for his brother’s funeral and has to struggle with the will he left behind. Manchester, for him, is the setting of another grief even more difficult to swallow.
Since everyone is talking about it, I will too: Casey Affleck. The key feature of this film is subtlety and his performance is quite possibly the best example. Affleck’s performance relies on being real.
His lifelike reactions are far from the bursting into tears or shouts you come to expect after watching films since you were born. He reacts like you would – and that makes it somehow even more touching. He is a man of very few words in the film, but his every look, every twitch and every breath conveys emotion.
The other performances are incredible in that regard. The pick of the lot is Michelle Williams’ Randy, whose arc is equally as devastating as Lee’s. She plays it like he does, but during her discussion with Lee it almost feels like she is going to depart from that subtlety – though the mistake is swiftly corrected.
With these performances as well as the neutral cinematography and colour palette, it feels like we’re watching their lives unfold before our eyes – we’re almost intruding. This makes Manchester by the Sea twice as powerful as other tear-jerking films.
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The emotion is not spat out of the characters’ mouths, but is revealed through tremblings in the voice and gestures, leaving your brain to make the deductions. In that regard, music is used sporadically and not to force the tears out of your eyes – that job belongs to the actors.
The use of flashbacks in this film is the same as when memories are jolted back in your mind every so often. He who did not feel something during the fire scene is dead inside – in what could easily be called the high point of the film, Lee’s pain is intercut with the unfolding of the tragedy in a deeply believable way showing raw emotion. The following scenes deal with complete and utter human loss, in a way not often seen before.
Even with scenes like these, Lee sometimes feels like a side character in a larger story – Patrick’s story. Very rarely in films do we get a depiction of a teenager like this, as often it seems writers try to reimagine youth and only remember certain points, that are exaggerated. Here we have a cocky 16 year old with his problems, who has to come with terms with the fact that his life is changing. While the acting here is maybe not on Affleck’s level, it remains remarkably lifelike.
With the devastating scenes come more light hearted moments, which allow the audience to breathe between the sheer despair. But these scenes also serve another purpose. In line with the idea that this film is incredibly lifelike, these scenes exist as they exist in life. Humour doesn’t have to die because the film is sad. Life goes on, it doesn’t end with the credits.
Moments like the sarcasm of Patrick or Lee’s shyness show that people can and will cope with grief in their own way – and will live with it. Even when your tears aren’t yet dry you will find yourself smiling, if not laughing, at these moments of optimism. The last image of the film, Patrick and Lee fishing, is an image of bonding and hope.e
All in all, this film shows that acting can be stripped of its extravagances – down to its bare bones and lifelike, coupled with writing of uncanny quality. The result is a film that treats grief as grief is, but doesn’t lose the truth of life: It goes on.
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