Manchester by the Sea: Review

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And the winner of this year’s best actor award goes to Casey Affleck for Manchester by the Sea”. The chances of hearing one of Hollywood’s elite utter those words at this year’s Oscars are more than likely. An actor often overlooked in comparison to his older brother’s success both behind and in front of the camera, here he shines as an uncle who is forced to deal with the ghosts of his past when his brother dies. 

Affleck’s performance isn’t one you’d necessarily expect to be worthy of all the award buzz that it has been generating. Working from an outstanding script by writer and director Kenneth Lonergan (Gangs of New York, Analyze This), there are no big speeches to make and no physical transformations that usually win actors golden statues. Instead, he plays an ordinary man dealing with an anger and guilt that we come to understand as his history is slowly revealed.

His performance then is suitably natural, deriving much from hardly doing anything at all. The beauty of his turn as Lee Chandler doesn’t come from the film’s bigger moments, but is instead found in the silences and painfully uncomfortable conversations that he constantly stumbles through.

Much like Affleck, the film itself feels raw, almost untouched, as it focuses on a humanity filled with awkwardness, sadness and regret. In one scene, Lee is attempting to organise funeral arrangements as the drawers and various food packages are slammed, rustled and ripped open by his nephew and one of his nephew’s two girlfriends; in another, the silent void of a funeral home is filled briefly by the creaking of one of their ornamental displays, a spark of life in a place of death; then, at said funeral, the service is interrupted by the constant vibrations of a mobile phone (an object obviously never too far away from the young nephew) before a conversation about food at the wake turns into an extended yelling conversation across a room full of people.

It sounds strange, but there’s something in these small, individual moments that best sum up my great fondness for the film. Where so many directors fail, Lonergan manages to capture something incredibly familiar and oddly wonderful in the way his characters communicate and feel. And whilst the story does feature a powerful, sucker-punch centrepiece that’s sure to move you in someway, it’s the interaction between the various relationships of the film that steal the show.

Affleck and his fellow cast members are absolutely key in bringing this all to life, and whilst the lead actor could be taking a few awards home this season, I wouldn’t be surprised if Michelle Williams took home a few as well. Playing Lee’s estranged wife, she breaks your heart into pieces within the limited amount of time she’s on the screen. Also wonderful is Lucas Hedges as Patrick, the teenage nephew who has to deal with his father’s death as well as the everyday worries that a teenager may have.

The most important thing to mention overall, however, is that while Manchester by the Sea is dealing with grief, it does so with a humour and warmth that saves itself from being too overtly depressing. There is great heartbreak within, but what ends up shining through most is that, throughout all the sadness, it’s the family and friends, the laughter and love, that ultimately prevails in the end. I think there’s a beautiful truth to that, a beautiful truth that made me connect with the film far more than I expected and which will stay with me long after I’ve seen it.

Image credit to http://www.impawards.com

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