A man entombed by the chill of grief, guilt and despair is warmed by the ordinary hometown love of friends and family in a humane and grounded film classic
AN ALWAYS WINTER, NEVER SPRING EXISTENCE BEGINS TO THAW
SNOW SITS DEEP on the streets of the small waterside town where hunched Boston janitor, Lee Chandler (Academy Award-winning Casey Affleck) has returned to face his brother, Joe’s death. The rare Christmas wreaths visible in a number of front doors are notable by the fact that not one carries any decoration. And there are barely any inidcators of Christmas colour anywhere else either. This is a chilly, bleached out world encapsulating Lee’s glaciated interior. It is as if he carries the snow and ice with him. (There is also a burning rage behind his eyes that bursts out physically and uncontrollably in bar-room brawls and swearing at the tenants whose pipes he unblocks.)
Lee is shocked to discover that, in his will, the chronically sick lone-parent, Joe (a contrastingly warm Kyle Chandler) assigned his brother the guardianship of his 16 year old son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee is not in that place, and knows it. Yet, Joe’s beyond-the-freezer ‘gift’ (the Manchester ground is too hard yet to bury the body) forces Lee to take an adult responsibility that he rarely took years earlier – – and ultimately led to tragic consequences. Ever since, it has been as if Lee has been serving time until his own death.
Earthed Humanity That Is Not Afraid Of Life’s Loose Ends
Kenneth Lonergan’s third feature in 15 years (his output is as slow-burning as his films) follows the acclaimed You Can Count On Me (2000) and Margaret (2011). All have in common sterling performances, especially from their leads (Anna Paquin was robbed of a Best Actress Academy Award nomination as Margaret); plus a determination to recognise real life’s knots, tangles and loose ends at the back of its supposed rich tapestry that conventional Hollywood movies would rather not admit. And a cameo by Matthew Broderick. (In Manchester By The Sea his slightly out-of-kilter smoothness in contrast to the rest of the cast sits perfectly in his role as Patrick’s Mom’s evangelical Christian fiancee.)
If Lonergan isn’t the tightest of editors (I would have been happy with Margaret ending an hour earlier, and there was a moment in Manchester By The Sea when I felt things were not going anywhere), it can also be read as his honest reflection of how life actually happens. The film’s soundtrack is heavy-handed at times, but Jody Lee Lipes’ cinematography is beautiful, and will undoubtedly draw visitors to the Massachusetts town.
There Is More To Life Than Life’s Body Blows
Interestingly, Manchester By The Sea happens to be the second film in the UK’s traditional ‘January Awards Season’ after A Monster Calls which has as its main theme the pain of living with heartbreak and deep grief. There is a moment in the England-set film where a divorced father admits to his son that rather than the fairy tale ending, ‘Most of us get messily ever after.’ It is the ‘messily ever after’ of real-life lived by ordinary people we could so easily be or encounter that is playwright/screenwriter/director Kenneth Lonergan’s concern.
Whereas A Monster Calls harks back to a pre-Christian spirituality that is literally earthed in Nature, a quiet all but unspoken Catholicism lies beneath Lee’s pain. It is as cultural as that of the Boston Globe reporters in last year’s Spotlight but there is a suggestion that it might be more than that. When Patrick, returning home from visiting his Born Again Mom (Gretchen Mol) and her fiancee dismisses them as being ‘Christian’, Lee reminds him: ‘We’re Christian, you know.’ He cannot stop looking at churches as he drives past them ,either. Lee’s belief seems like the hard-won thread than runs beneath all the harsh experiences and choices of Andrew Garfield’s Father Sebastian in Silence.
Hope And Lightness Accompany Life’s Nightmares
Lonergan doesn’t make life easy for his characters, but there is lightness and humour to be had too. He recognises that the loss of a child carries a lifelong grief but that that is not the end of the story. (The theme, too, of the 2016 Nick Cave documentary One More Time With Feeling.) Lee’s ex, Randi (Michelle Williams making a devastating impact in her short screen time) retains a broken heart yet has remarried and had a baby and carries deep remorse for how she treated Lee and forgiveness over the loss of their children. She can admit her love for him even while he remains devoid of any emotion.
So, when a sly smile breaks across Lee’s face as he learns to understand his nephew better, it is heartbreaking for us, the audience. In flashbacks throughout this often emotionally raw movie, we have learnt how much this new-found happiness, however fleeting, has cost him.
And when a small group of family and friends at last can gather around the newly dug graveside, and there remains a space on the family tombstone left for the broken son, the ring of love that never gave up on Lee is tangible. His healing is not yet over (whether it shall ever be this side of life), and he knows it is too painful to remain in Manchester, but Lee is not where he began, and he knows he is not alone.
Manchester By The Sea is now out on DVD and Blu-Ray