Faced with the prospect of going to see Manchester by the Sea, I wondered if I’m a serious movie fan at all. When it’s freezing out, wouldn’t I just be happier staying in and watching Bridget Jones’s Baby?
But reticence and cold weather actually set the tone for Kenneth Lonergan’s Oscar buzzy movie about bereavement.
In an impressively wintry Boston suburb, Casey Affleck gives the kind of quiet performance that normally gets overlooked. Lee Chandler, a depressed janitor overwhelmed with guilt and anger, has his mundane existence interrupted by the death of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler). Lee is forced to return to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea to take up guardianship of his teenage nephew Patrick.
Like another Oscar contender, Jackie, it’s a movie all about planning a funeral, except here the ground is too hard and cold to bury the dead. Flashbacks show old Lee as a boisterous man married to Michelle Williams (another tear-jerking performance as a working-class mother for the actress). We learn that the couple have a shared tragedy that is the reason Lee won’t remain in Manchester.
This causes tension with the nephew, played by Lucas Hedges. I don’t know how Kyle Chandler came up with this kid, or how the little charmer gets all the adoring girls. Hedges is fine though (one cringe-worthy crying scene aside) as a selfish teen who doesn’t want his grimy-looking life uprooted, and who happens to be bound to an emotionally closed-off, inarticulate time bomb.
Lee is an unsettling character – aggressive, tightly wound, numb. I didn’t go into Manchester rooting for Affleck, but the performance had an authenticity that the likes of Gosling wouldn’t have had. I don’t know if it’s the kind of indelible, undeniable performance that justifies the awards sweep (before Denzel’s SAG triumph turned the Best Actor competition into a two-horse race) or if Lee Chandler is something Affleck hasn’t done before.
If you need resolution or a Hollywood ending – know Lee Chandler is too far gone for that. Manchester is not overwhelmingly bleak thanks to its well-observed humour, but it’s definitely far too long, whether its a bona fide masterpiece or a just another well-made Sundance indie.