XXY Reviews: Manchester by the Sea by Kenneth Lonergan

XXY Reviews: Manchester by the Sea by Kenneth Lonergan

In his critically-acclaimed third feature, director Kenneth Lonergan tells a heartbreaking tale of loss and grief in Manchester by the Sea. Lee Chandler, played beautifully by Golden Globe winner Casey Affleck, is a solitary janitor in Boston, summoned back to his hometown by news of his brother’s illness. The film is a no-frills story, coloured by realism. It is fragile and honest, making this a difficult but utterly compelling watch.

The issue of time shapes this film and Lonergan explores this in with various guises. We are first introduced to Affleck’s character Lee at work in a building in Quincy, a town south of Manchester where he used to live. He deals with the tenants’ problems, persisting with his handyman tasks as they moan and fuss over him. In one instance, a lady invites his romantic interest as she talks to a friend over the phone about “fancying her janitor”. Lee overhears but it doesn’t affect him. His mind is elsewhere and his face reflects this; it is a picture of a man still answering to his past. It has clearly shaded his present.

Manchester by the Sea

Lonergan’s use of flashbacks is a clever method in reinforcing the impact of Lee’s previous life. We weave back and forth between him and his former self, giving meaning to seemingly inconsequential scenes. At one point, he sits in a bar contemptuously staring at two men who he later attacks for no good reason. This is intercut with scenes from years gone by; a happier time in his life marking a different world to this soulless bar he now occupies. In this way, Lonergan is careful not to invite our disdain towards his main character. Instead, we feel compassion for Lee and the treacherous path that has led him to his current existence.

Kudos should furthermore be given to Affleck for his tremendous ability to tread the line between a character’s vulnerability and resolution. This plays nicely into Lonergan’s use of time. Lee is as fragile as he is stoical, and Affleck carefully bears the weight of Lee’s harrowing past while showing a determination to grapple with the present day. It is quietly charming in the midst of such horrific events.

Affleck’s chemistry with other actors such as on-screen nephew Patrick, played wonderfully by Lucas Hedges, is another testament to his capabilities as a performer. When Lee moves to Manchester, he is set to be Patrick’s legal guardian. Indeed, their relationship is fraught with emotion as they both try to navigate a new life together. Yet the beauty here lies in the detail. Small moments when Affleck and Hedges glimpse at each other tell a thousand stories. Their stillness marks an unspoken bond about the loss they have suffered. In one scene, Patrick suffers a panic attack and Lee has to calm him. It is a heartwarming, humorous moment in which Lee is unsure how to deal with this teenage boy. Despite his past and his flaws, moments like these serve as a gentle reminder that these people are only human; everyone is trying their best.

Michelle Williams, while only given a small amount of screen time, has deservedly received widespread praise for her role in this film as Lee’s ex-wife, Randi. During flashbacks to Lee’s past, Williams as Randi shows life as Lee once lived it; with a stable family. Williams’s portrayal of her character towards the end of the film reinforces this dichotomy with their present life. It is utterly harrowing. An encounter with Lee on the street prompts Williams to pour her heart out, as though the grief seems to be physically oozing out of her. The tension is palpable and their shared past hangs over them like a looming storm cloud. When words don’t suffice Williams and Affleck say it through facial expressions. The audience is left in no doubt what bubbles beneath the surface.

In conclusion, Manchester by the Sea is a devastating story. And Lonergan makes no apologies for this. There is no happy ending, no tying up of loose ends. But there are moments where unity, family and love prevail. Life is bleak; this is very clear. But Lonergan also understands the importance of minutiae, injecting moments of humour and compassion into this film at times you wouldn’t expect; perhaps like life itself. And this is why it is worth watching. It might be a lesson that time opens up old wounds. But it’s also a reminder that time is a healer, too.


Written by Georgina Grier,


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