My expectations for Manchester by the Sea were quite low. Judging by its lacklustre posters, one could see Casey Afflck and Michelle Williams looking wistfully into the middle distance, their brows subtly furrowed in such a way as to suggest internal conflict, all superimposed upon an overcast sky. You’ll forgive me, I hope, for presuming this was hackneyed awards bait of the worst sort: where affluent actors depict working people as mumblers who live bleak lives in bleak settings shot with bleak lighting, and a couple of the principles end up crying and shouting at some point which gives a reprieve from the sombre tedium of it all. A few critics then get paid off to call it a ‘brave’ or ‘naked’ performance piece and the film is all set for some awards. Manchester by the Sea avoids all of this (well… most of this) and ends up being a fine and accessible drama with a really refreshing element of humour.
It may not seem like the ideal set up for solid comedy: Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a bitter divorced janitor working in Boston who has to head home to Manchester, Massachusetts, to take care of his nephew when his brother dies. Nonetheless, it was the humour that I found the defining trait of this film. Without the laughs, this would be a well-performed but earnest piece that tackles some dark territory to no particular goal. The humour, I think, is not only the saving grace but the purpose. The film is all about how ridiculous people are and how that makes them as funny as they are infuriating.
Shows the merit of a snappy pace even during the contemplative moments
That’s not to say it avoids the surface elements of awards bait. Manchester by the Sea is set in the bitingly cold and blustery coastal winter that Massachusetts can offer up, it employs a fair bit of scenery porn, and the emotional climax of the film involves two people incoherently crying at each other. However, these remain surface elements to a film with genuine substance. The film-makers have a story to tell rather than a sequence of scenes which mistake ennui for artistic credentials.
There is no sign of any of the worst excesses of the faux-artistic director. There is absolutely no reliance on overlong shots of nothing happening to crassly imply meaning or significance; there are no pregnant silences designed to inform us of the director’s serious film-making style; the cold weather is actually an integral plot element rather than just a bleedingly obvious metaphor. The music is even notable as we are given a jaunty classical score that suggests a sort of serendipitous causality to all the events as they slot into place. This keeps the action rolling at an energetic rate so the film never lingers. Considering it clocks in above two hours, Manchester by the Sea never felt that long.
Michelle Williams is a fine actress but she is getting far too much credit for this film
I must raise that Michelle Williams has not nearly as big a role as the publicity suggests. It’s frankly a bit dishonest, as the main acting support Affleck gets comes in the form of Lucas Hedges, playing the nephew Patrick, and he should receive more credit for it. If the movie is about anything, it’s about the relationship between a tired and crotchety man who now has to spend far too much time with a teenager more interested in cheating on his girlfriend than grieving for his dead father. It’s almost a buddy movie.
This isn’t the first movie to find humour in bereavement or dysfunctional families, but Manchester by the Sea does this well. It went a lot darker than I expected once I was used to its slightly farcical flavour but always managed to pull back the humour without a jarring shift in tone. Don’t let the po-faced advertising fool you, there’s levity along with the drama here.
Verdict: A surprisingly funny drama dealing with a death in a family of dysfunctional people.