Movie Review: Manchester by the Sea

Paramount Pictures New Zealand / YouTube

If there's any justice, Manchester By the Sea will take away the big prize at this year's Oscars.

Manchester by the Sea (R13)

137 mins  ★★★★★

Director Kenneth Lonergan (Margaret, You Can Count on Me) is a man of little flash and many words, but his words (both in plays and in many more films than he has himself directed) create extraordinarily powerful stories of ordinary people grappling with the sort of tragedies that could befall any of us.

His third directorial outing (nominated for a Golden Globe and expected to be lauded at the forthcoming Academy Awards) profiles the lonely Lee, an incredibly closed and sad-looking man who returns reluctantly to the titular coastal town to deal with family affairs.

Through his interactions with relatives and people from his past, Globe winner Casey Affleck paints Lee as a portrait of deep pain and enforced isolation who is difficult to like; his unorthodox response to grief non-plusses those around him, with his only physical respite coming in spurts of self-flagellating pub violence.

Casey Affleck is captivating in his awkward stillness in Manchester by the Sea.

Casey Affleck is captivating in his awkward stillness in Manchester by the Sea.

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It's very much a film about people, and Lonergan's forte is in getting jaw-dropping performances from his uniformly excellent cast, including Affleck (who has won every award he's been nominated for so far), the incomparable Michelle Williams whose small role delivers one of the most heartrending scenes, and a terrifically assured young Lucas Hedges as Lee's ostensibly orphaned nephew.

Meanwhile, the supporting cast members are so natural you'd think they were locals plucked straight out of a seafood diner in Massachusetts. With Lonergan's unassuming camerawork often opting for long-distance over close-ups, the viewer is thus left to be drawn into Lee's unspoken but clearly tortured existence through the magnetism of performance.

But having said the writer-director is all about words, in fact Lonergan's (long, but engaging) script frequently says more with silence than with dialogue. Affleck is captivating in his awkward stillness and it is only through flashbacks to chattier, huggier times that we get a sense of the man who used to inhabit this cracked shell.

Although there are some terrific, surprising moments of levity and black humour between uncle and nephew, the most significant plot points are handled wordlessly, undercover of beautiful, swooning classical music. (The director is admirably unafraid to use the clichéd, but indisputably formidable Albinoni's Adagio to score the story's biggest revelation, and one marvels at how redundant dialogue would have been.)

Manchester by the Sea is a story of life's ordinary tragedy, conveyed with extraordinary effect.  

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