Casey Affleck’s time has come. The talented performer, better known for bit roles, earlier breakout hit Gone Baby Gone and being his elder brother’s brother, knocks it out of the park in Kenneth Lonergan’s awards favourite Manchester by the Sea.
About all the ways, right, wrong and in-between to cope with grief, Manchester by the Sea knows when to tell us everything and nothing. Lee (Affleck) fobbing off advances at a bar or going about his daily routine tells us almost all we need to know about him, until one morning Lee’s brother dies of a heart attack and he’s forced to return to his childhood home.
Receiving an icy reception from many, flashbacks and occasionally wordless sequences gradually fill in the blanks, though enough is always left up to speculation or imagination to keep us guessing and thoroughly hooked. The revelation midway, mooted throughout, you may very well see coming if you’re paying enough attention, but even if you do its brutal impact won’t relent and you’ll spend much of the latter half processing and coming to terms with all you’ve seen so far.
If this is starting to sound like a perpetually despondent family drama, Manchester by the Sea is anything but. The exchanges between Affleck and emerging talent Lucas Hedges, starring as Lee’s nephew Patrick, are alternately heart-wrenching and hilarious, and often both. Witnessing their dealing with very difficult circumstances in almost polar-opposite ways, the Best Picture contender manages to be both a consistently rewarding drama and quiet meditation on coming to terms with loss and occasionally the unfathomable.
Lee, a perfect character by no means, as brought to life by Affleck benefits from the elaboration of distinctly different relationships and interactions with each and every one of his childhood acquaintances, with barely any of the film’s dialogue or interactions stock-standard, simplistic or, thankfully, predictable. Lee’s reunion with his estranged sister-in-law Elise (Gretchen Mol), brief and seemingly innocuous, is only of the hugely significant sequences presented simply and emphatically, contributing to Lee’s devastatingly compelling character arc patiently realised by Lonergan and Affleck throughout.
Interestingly, one key sequence where Lee is insulted ends not with a simple return to the central character fuming but a short tracking shot of the nameless figure as he continues on his way in Manchester. With none of the minor characters rendered as either caricatures or passing interests, their small roles are as well staged as many other of the film’s seemingly inconsequential details, importantly making the town from which the picture draws its name as much a character as any listed in the credits.
The two male leads’ performances the stand-outs amongst a stellar cast, including a worthy turn from Kyle Chandler as Lee’s departed brother, it is nevertheless Michelle Williams as Lee’s former wife, in spite of her comparatively short screen time, who delivers the sledgehammer act which elevates Manchester by the Sea far beyond an emotion-laden spectacle to something that runs a gamut of affectivity rarely evidenced on screen.
A wise early purchase by Amazon following its premiere at Sundance which has continued to garner popularity and acclaim in the lead up to this year’s Oscars, Manchester by the Sea is immeasurably more than the sum of its parts.
Manchester by the Sea is in cinemas on February 2