Manchester by the Sea review: "Packs a real wallop"

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If ever there was a film that epitomised the saying ‘no pain, no gain’, this is it. Packs a real wallop.

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Kenneth Lonergan’s third film in a 16-year career offers further proof of his ear for dialogue and eye for the messiness of life. Like 2000’s You Can Count on Me and, especially, 2011’s Margaret, Manchester by the Sea refuses to sugarcoat or simplify, instead letting the drama sprawl and overspill until a 360-degree portrait of a man, a family and a community drifts into focus.

Boston janitor Lee (Casey Affleck) returns to the titular town in Massachusetts when his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies of a heart attack. A morose, taciturn loner given to communicating with his fists after too many beers, Lee is horrified to find that he has been named legal guardian of his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), whose ties to Manchester-by-the-Sea – hockey team, rock band, two girlfriends – mean Lee will need to stick around his hometown for a good while to come.

Under grey skies clogged with pellets of snow, the drama inches along, with flashbacks revealing that Lee was once married to Randi (Michelle Williams), who still lives in the area. True, withholding the source of Lee’s emotional shutdown for a late reveal is something you expect from a thriller rather than a sombre character study. But such is the authenticity on display elsewhere, it doesn’t feel schematic.

Viewed another way, holding it back could even be seen as an act of courage on Lonergan’s part, denying viewers an easy means to empathise with such a closed-mouthed, locked-up character. One thing’s for sure though: the flashback hits you like a freight train when it finally arrives.

Manchester by the Sea is not an easy film to watch. Not everyone will get on with its loose (but still controlled) storytelling, comprising baggy conversations and non-events that other movies would deem unnecessary.

Meanwhile, its hard-packed, wintry setting is enough to make viewers’ joints throb. Even sharper is the pain to the heart: Affleck’s committed turn as a man calcified by grief is harrowing to watch. Williams, meanwhile, haunts the periphery of the picture before stepping front and centre to inhabit a scene so raw and uncompromising it stings like a slap to the face on an ice-cold day.

If it’s thrills or cheer you’re after, you’re in the wrong place. Lonergan doesn’t do zip and zest, though he does still appreciate the importance of humour in the direst of circumstances. Yet Manchester by the Sea offers its own particular joys, going places that few movies dare to consider these days.

The film also favours truth over trite resolutions, a courageous choice that will likely deflate its chances with the uplift-seeking Academy. No matter. It’s a triumph. And Lonergan cements his reputation as one of the most vital voices in US cinema.

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Editor-at-Large, Total Film

Jamie Graham is the Editor-at-Large of Total Film magazine. You'll likely find them around these parts reviewing the biggest films on the planet and speaking to some of the biggest stars in the business – that's just what Jamie does. Jamie has also written for outlets like SFX and the Sunday Times Culture, and appeared on podcasts exploring the wondrous worlds of occult and horror.