Manchester by the Sea (2016)

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Last February, Leonardo DiCaprio won the Academy Award for Best Actor. Now while I do follow awards season, I don’t use that as a barometer of quality, and I try and keep awards prospects out of my reviews of films, because some of the best films never came close to the Academy Awards. The reason I mention them in this review is because the smart money is on the fact that Casey Affleck will be DiCaprio’s successor in winning Best Actor next month – and it could not be for a more different, yet strangely similar film. Manchester by the Sea is an incredible film, and I will not be surprised to see this be named my favourite film of the year. It is all kinds of incredible.

The reason I compare DiCaprio and Affleck is because both The Revenant and Manchester by the Sea are films about survival. Obviously The Revenant was a difficult film to watch because of its brutal violence, harsh storyline and general coldness (both in terms of the film’s climate and the tone of the film) – and Manchester by the Sea was a tragic social drama about grief and loss, which was equally as difficult to watch. However, both films feature dedicated leading performances from actors who play characters who are forced into unwanted circumstances and are simply forced to do the only thing they know how to do – survive. Manchester by the Sea is a film that may not be very easy to watch, but mainly because it stirs up emotions and leaves you in a puddle of tears. It is a realist drama about something that affects the majority of us – loss, and I cannot think of many films that deal with this very sensitive topic as well as Manchester by the Sea.

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a janitor and handyman living a sad existence. He is alone and divorced, and lives in a one-room apartment, lonely and depressed. The reason for this is shown throughout the film, and once one realizes why Lee is the way he is, it is impossible not to be brought to tears. Not only does his past haunt him, he also finds out that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has suddenly died, and he has been named the guardian of Joe’s teenage son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges) – uncle and nephew soon find themselves in conflict, as Lee does not want to be Patrick’s guardian, because it would require moving away from Boston and to Manchester. Patrick doesn’t want Lee to be his guardian because the only positive parental figure he ever had in his life was his father. However, as the film progresses, layers are taken away, and at the very core lies a story of incredible family endurance and surviving a period of grief, which can sometimes feel like the world is coming to an end.

Kenneth Lonergan is an extraordinary filmmaker, and I can say this because he made arguably the greatest film of the 21st century, the incredible Margaret. It was only until now that Lonergan went behind the camera again, and he makes a film that could be considered even better than his postmodern urban epic. Manchester by the Sea is simply extraordinary, and solidifies Lonergan as one of the foremost screenwriters and most underrated directors working in cinema today. Manchester by the Sea is one of the most well-written films I’ve seen in a long time, and it is filled with so much introspection and discussion into the meaning of life. I truly believe that the answer to the universe is contained within a script written by Kenneth Lonergan. It is strange to praise a man as a filmmaker when he’s only made three films, and very sporadically at that, but when two of those films are outright masterpieces, it is impossible that he isn’t talented (and I don’t mention You Can Count on Me because I have yet to see it – but I will surely love it, because if Margaret and Manchester by the Sea are anything to go by, Kenneth Lonergan is someone we should appreciate and adore, because he’s absolutely brilliant).

Manchester by the Sea is a film that is extraordinary on so many levels, but most of all, it is Affleck’s performance that grounds it and gives it meaning. It would’ve been so easy for Affleck to play a character that was outlandish, loud and outrageous, but he focused on portraying Lee as a far more intimate, sensitive character, and in that, along with Lonergan’s incredible script, Lee Chandler is one of the most heartbreakingly compelling and extraordinarily resonant characters in modern cinema history. A lonely, but kindhearted and very complex man, Lee is far from being close to any stereotype (even if the standard Boston Bar Fight occurs in this film, as it does in nearly every film set in that great city), and Affleck’s portrayal is meticulous, touching and utterly incredible. He is outright unbelievably good in this film, and his performance stands as a masterclass in acting. Truly Affleck’s finest hour, and a performance actors of the future will look to for inspiration.

Beyond Affleck’s incredible performance, there is another truly beautiful performance in this film, in the form of the young Lucas Hedges, who plays Patrick. I remember Hedges from his small role in Moonrise Kingdom, and here he finally gets a larger role, and much like Jacob Tremblay last year, watching Manchester by the Sea was like seeing a star being born – I truly believe (and sincerely hope) that Manchester by the Sea serves to be a springboard for Hedges to go onto bigger things, because he gives an amazing performance here, and holds his own against Affleck. This film is a two-hander, and the wonderful chemistry between Affleck and Hedges is one of the most poignant and incredible parts of 2016’s wonderful cinematic output. Michelle Williams is also in the film, although I hardly noticed her, as she was either fading into the background or just didn’t do anything interesting. She didn’t give a bad performance, just one that I could’ve either had developed a bit more, or re-worked in a way that the character of Randi could be written out of the film, because this is a film about Lee and his nephew, and while Randi’s storyline is vital to the film, it could’ve been done slightly better. This is literally the only flaw in Manchester by the Sea, and in a film with such subtle and quietly passionate performances, Michelle Williams’ hysterical and loud performance sticks out like a painfully sore thumb – which is strange because despite meaning well and showing occasional , Michelle Williams is often just very bland, and I am awaiting a truly special performance from her where she is actually captivating on screen.

Manchester by the Sea is a flawless film. It is small and humble, and I wasn’t expecting to be this moved by the film, which I expected to be wonderful and very emotionally resonant. What I was not expecting was to cry so deeply at the profound nature of this film. I was also not expecting it to be this funny – don’t get me wrong, Manchester by the Sea is an intensely morbid and bleak drama, but there are some truly very funny moments that make the film even more realistic, because even though life does sometimes throw us into horrible situations, life itself isn’t entirely miserable, and even in the face of grief, loss or depression, it is important to always remember to look on the bright side of life and just move forward, finding the positive factors in every situation. Anyone who has lost someone special to them will be moved by this film. It is an incredible journey, and nearly everything about Manchester by the Sea is flawless. It is a beautiful film, and I adored it. I hope that I don’t have to return and edit this part after I’ve seen a few more films, because I truly want to believe it when I say this – Manchester by the Sea is the best film of 2016.

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