It is frequently said that men need to ‘get better’ at emoting; we do not experience our emotions fully, or deal with them in a particularly healthy way. In light of this, Manchester By the Sea should be heralded as one of the finest explorations of masculine grief ever put to film. Our protagonist Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a withdrawn and volatile beast. His life is laid out in a numbing routine of janitorial work and unsolicited bar-fights. For lack of a better term, Affleck is revelatory. He manages to subtly convey a man straining at every turn to conceal his turbulent emotions. Self-loathing, anguish, and doubt betray every flicker of his eyes, and every twitch of his mouth.
‘Manchester By the Sea should be heralded as one of the finest explorations of masculine grief ever put to film’
When Lee’s brother dies of a pre-existing heart condition, Lee is forced to return to his home of Manchester, a place where the spectre of an even deeper unresolved trauma awaits him. The majority of the action consists of the unlikely, pseudo paternal relationship that emerges between Lee and his now orphaned nephew Patrick (played with remarkable tact by relative newcomer Lucas Hedges). The way in which these two men wrestle with their emotions is sensitive, genuine, and disconcertingly funny. Neither wants to have some sort of profound emotional revelation, instead striving for distractions from their pain, whether it is playing hockey, or juggling two unsuspecting girlfriends. The levity is perfunctory however, offering realistic and welcome respite from outbursts of rage, and the agonising mundanities of grief: ringing funeral parlours, analysing the will.
‘This is a film that resists melodrama at every opportunity, as even its most devastating emotional reveals are treated with an understated dignity’
Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan has achieved something miraculous with his third directorial feature. This is a film that resists melodrama at every opportunity, as even its most devastating emotional reveals are treated with an understated dignity, that only serves to make them more harrowing. I will not spoil the most heart-wrenching of these moments, but the realistic and brave manner in which it is portrayed is emblematic of the whole film. Manchester By the Sea is a curious beast, that manages to encapsulate a masculine aversion to emotion, in a way that is wholly emotional. If I had one complaint, it would be that some of the female characters seem somewhat sidelined at times, possibly even under-developed. But perhaps this is part of the point. This is after all an exploration of male grief, as subtle as it is powerful.
(Image courtesy of the Affleck/Middleton project, All star and StudioCanal)