Review: “Manchester by the Sea”

Manchester posterThe loss of a relative is difficult at the best of times. When that relation is reasonably young, and has left behind a family, the situation is only made harder. It’s important to be there for one’s extended family, but what happens when your hometown brings back painful memories?

That’s exactly the dilemma facing Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a handyman living in the outer suburbs of Boston. One winter’s morning, Lee receives a call informing him that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has been admitting to hospital, having suffered a heart attack. Lee immediately makes his way to the hospital, but by the time he arrives, Joe has unfortunately been pronounced as dead.

Upon learning of his brother’s death, Lee drives to the seaside town of Manchester-by-the-Sea to notify Joe’s only son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges) of the bad tidings. Remarkably, Patrick takes the news of his father’s death quite well, continuing on with his life as if nothing were amiss. Satisfied that Patrick is coping, Lee plans on returning to his lowly job in Boston. This is, until learning that Joe’s will has made Lee the legal guardian of Patrick.

Having not known about Joe’s intentions, Lee is taken aback at having to stay, and it’s not because he enjoys his job as a handyman. Years earlier, when Patrick was still a child, Lee was happily living in Manchester with his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and their young family. One night, after a booze-filled party with his friends, Lee started an unprotected fire in his fireplace, resulting in a housefire claiming the lives of his children.

One might wonder why I’ve written about Lee’s family and his role in their death, given that this element of the story wasn’t revealed in any of the marketing material. It all comes down to character development. When first introduced to the audience, Lee comes across as anti-social and emotionally withdrawn, making it difficult to relate to his character. Once his backstory is explained, this becomes less of an issue, and his behaviour justifiable.

There is a more bothersome element to Manchester by the Sea – its overly sombre atmosphere. With little to no sense of joy or warmth coming from the characters, there’s nothing particularly “entertaining” about this picture. Of course, it would be inappropriate if a story about grief and loss was a joyous affair, but one would hope there to be a sense of hope or elation somewhere in the script.

In fairness though, there is the occasional moment of humour to alleviate the solemn tone, and the story is never dull despite the mood. It is interesting to see how the characters, in their various states of mourning, overcome their sense of loss – Lee by keeping to himself, Patrick by reconnecting with his estranged mother, Randi by developing another relationship. The contrasts between these individuals is probably the most fascinating aspect of Manchester by the Sea.

Yet these nuanced characters would not be nothing, were it not for the actors portraying them. Much has been said about Casey Affleck, who just last week won an Academy Award for his performance, but Hedges and Williams are just as worthy of acknowledgement. The dry humour of Hedges is the perfect folly for Affleck’s temperament, while Williams delivers a heartbreaking monologue in the film’s third act.

Manchester by the Sea is far too melancholic to be moving, but it does offer an engaging narrative which demonstrates the different ways people react to, and cope with, the passing of a loved one. And with superb performances, the film’s made that bit better.

3.5 stars

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