Manchester by the Sea

An extraordinary spectacle of irreducible grief. It is a film filled with undemonstrative, pitch perfect performances - quiet delivery systems for minutely realised characterisation, so thoroughly thought-through and deeply considered that they reach the screen as instinctive, seamless representations of true life.

In this respect it belongs to Casey Affleck, to a significant degree, and his work is exceptional. He is a model of restrained, internalised agony. You begin feeling nervous around him, like he’s a firecracker that might go off at any moment, and that never entirely goes away. He manages to convey this through only the smallest adjustments to fiercely contained body language; a dangerously placid ocean surface, punctuated only occasionally by jagged, flashing rocks that never let you settle, just as he can never seem to do. His virtually instantaneous transformation into the withdrawn husk we see today, at the point of his greatest trauma, illustrates the moment’s cataclysmic nature. It is like a black hole opens up, and he is sucked into a netherworld where only the barest form of himself remains. As our journey into his story deepens, so does the readable pain etched deep in his character. Or rather, our perception of it becomes more acute, as it was, of course, always there. It is nuanced work built to bear deep reflection.

Michelle Williams conveys powerful emotion from a role with surprisingly small screen time. It is a very focussed and effective turn; the definition of an invaluable supporting performance. Lucas Hedges, from basically nowhere, is a charismatic minor phenom, his comedic dynamic with Affleck a regular delight, and central to the film’s drama, its charm, and ultimately its weight. The chemistry between all players, large and small, creates a feeling of a real community. The film’s title bearing the name of the place is apt. This is operatic scale tragedy in small town lives.

Lonergan displays expert judgement in knowing what he needs to show, and what he does not. The scene between Affleck and Williams… oh, boy. A single scene, as quiet a climax as you can imagine, one of arresting power and instant renown, tells us so much about the path their marriage has taken. “There are things I should burn in hell for what I said to you”. This scene is power, restraint, timing. Lonergan knows he didn’t need to show the marriage break-up; we fill in the blanks for ourselves. It epitomises the streamlined, focussed nature of the film’s exploration of this extended family’s lives and psyches. There are no words said in this film when none are required. And when there are, they are this - “I can’t beat it. I can’t beat it. I’m sorry”. It is a film of a hundred perfect moments, many of them built from pain, but some from unshakeable human optimism.

How strange that I had remembered the central, long sequence of revelation as being so much deeper into the movie than it actually is. I was fully expecting an hour and a half to pass before it appeared. In fact, it must be more like forty minutes. Perhaps the sheer reverberating impact of this haunting sequence stretched it out in my mind, a ripple effect spreading its ghostly pallor over the film.

The editing is a quiet marvel. A mature and assured, elegant, concise, powerful method of storytelling. Events of past and present inter-mingle as they are gradually fed to us in an order that feels like it’s unfolding perfectly naturally, despite the jumbled timeframes and unusual rhythms. Psychic interludes, flashbacks timed to convey with penetrating interiority Lee’s feelings of being pulled painfully back into a life he is trying to bury.

And it is so, so funny. Comedy and drama, each acute, neither comprising the other. Hard to do, but as close to a feeling of real life as anything cinema can produce, when it is done this well. It is a film about grief, and family, and responsibility, but it is not all down in the dumps. There is a tonne of character and situation-borne humour. And, there is hope. Elise sobers, and re-marries (OK, to creepy Matthew Broderick…but still, she is alive, trying, and not alone). Randi too re-marries, and has a child. Even Lee - he has a new job, a hard-earned bond with Paddy, some plans of a sort for the future. A spare room, for all his shit. The two of them close the film, in a very Koreeda-esque shot, walking the Earth together. The pain remains forever, but the people in Manchester by the Sea find the strength to choose life, even if they must live it haunted.

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