Manchester by the Sea
January 18, 2017 § 4 Comments
The main reason I wanted to see Manchester by the Sea was its director, Kenneth Lonergan, whose Margaret had impressed me some years ago. Lonergan had become embroiled in lengthy legal battles with his producers over editing this ambitious film that tackled ethical questions of contemporary scope and had a starry cast surrounding its lesser-known central actors. The result, six years delayed, was untidy and imperfect, but tinged with a genius recognised by critics and Hollywood luminaries such as Scorsese.
A world away from the post-9/11 streets and skies of New York, the setting for his new film is the eponymous New England town, a small coastal community. After the sprawl of Margaret here’s a work that’s controlled and finely structured, especially in its use of flashbacks, which, rather than signalling a clear-cut temporal shift or hazy recollection, exist as wholly experienced within the present consciousness of the film’s main character, Lee Chandler. They are the fulcrum of his inner life.
We first encounter Lee in Boston as a janitor and drudge of all work for an apartment complex, in which he inhabits a dismal cell-like room. He’s an angry man whose brooding surliness is easily provoked to violence. What takes him back to Manchester is the news that his brother Joe is in hospital and by the time he gets there Joe has died. From this point the film pivots on the relationship between Lee and his teenage nephew Patrick, now virtually orphaned – his alcoholic mother has long been incapable and elsewhere. For all his enormous affection for Patrick, Lee cannot accept what the inherited task of guardianship would involve. Nor can he express this affection. Joe’s premature death assumes a familial ‘normality’, but the earlier tragedy that haunts Lee (and is hidden from the audience until almost halfway) defies any kind of commonplace response.
Yet life is assertive in this film that’s so plainly about death and grief. There are lightnesses of touch, kindnesses and pleasures, even comedy. Although less in control than he allows himself to know, Patrick has an engaging sunniness to see him through; he’s an alpha teen, in a band, on the hockey team, taking his pick of the girls. More laid-back and confident than the teenage Lisa (played by Anna Paquin) at the centre of Margaret, indeed quite a different personality, he nonetheless shares her adolescent combination of intransigence and appetite for experience. Late in the film we see him in a sideways shot as he contemplates a set of framed photographs: we don’t see his eyes or expression, we don’t see the photographs, though they’ve already appeared in the film; it’s a moment of changing perspective, finally belying the boy’s apparent selfishness. And it’s characteristic of Lonergan’s observational intensity.
This is a very physical film, not just in Lee’s disruptive violence, or in the emphatically absent physicality of affection between its two main characters. Lonergan’s sensitivity in the direction of actors makes him attentive to nuances of physical presence that can create character. Though part of Lee‘s story, the other characters have their own weight, they solidly populate the larger scene of life. It means that subsidiary, even incidental figures embody a reality that’s authentically singular. Posture, small gestures or mere flickerings of expression convey this with the same economy Lonergan (the film’s writer as well as director) can deploy in a single line of dialogue.
Closeness and distance are acutely calibrated in exchanges between characters, or by their placing in the frame, to the point where awareness of touch or its refusal can become almost unbearable. One scene stands out: where Lee enters the hospital morgue to see his brother’s body and his slow but unhesitant caresses show us all the love and loss he feels.
The bleached colour here reminded me of the new wave, low-budget Romanian cinema of recent years (The Death of Mr Lazarescu; Police,Adjective; The Happiest Girl in the World, to mention a few) and there’s a similar quasi-documentary quality in parts of Manchester by the Sea. That’s an accidental echo of Lonergan’s heightened naturalism, but the director whose spirit presides over the two of his films I’ve now seen is surely John Cassavetes, the great pioneer of US independent cinema and a particular ciné vérité style. The road accident at the start of Margaret is paralleled by events in Cassavetes’ wonderful Opening Night (1977).
The acting is superb throughout (Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges, Gretchen Mol and everyone else). Where Margaret had a decidedly female focus, in Manchester by the Sea the women deliver their nonetheless impactful performances at the edges of this essentially masculine drama.
Lee’s life is bleak and the gradual movement of the film gives us a clear account of why this is so. Yet it’s the nature of this movement that makes it so compellingly immersive; we’ve seen the processes at work in despair and resistance to it as Lee endures his guilt and self-hatred. Though Manchester by the Sea offers no easy resolution, it isn’t cheerless. Painful, yes, but without that effect we might fail to see how much this film is intelligent and wise.