Manchester by the Sea (US 2016)


What to say?

It’s wrong to judge anything against something it’s not trying to be so I’m hesitant in criticising Manchester by the Sea as I’m probably falling into this trap. However, having been impressed with the first half of the film I found my engagement derailed by the flashback of the narrative enigma, a traumatic event (spoilers ahead).

The film focuses on Lee whose past returns to haunt him. That sounds formulaic but the narrative and visual style takes its cue from early 1970s New Hollywood, which favoured art over commerce. Casey Affleck’s portrayal of Lee is point perfect: a youngish man who is trapped within inarticulate masculinity; he habitually chooses to end his solo boozing sessions with a fight. He is a man whose manual work offers no fulfilment and he speaks his mind to ungrateful customers. The slow paced early scenes that introduce his mundane existence, in a snow littered Boston, are reminiscent of the down-at-heel locations favoured by, for example, Bob Rafelson (The King of Marvin Gardens, 1972, and Five Easy Pieces, 1970). The relatively long takes of Lee’s routine work, beautifully framed and using a long lens to flatten the mise en scène, are redolent of such ‘70s American art cinema films and I was delighted to watch this part. Rafelson’s films also dealt with delusional and ‘bottled up’ males who won’t engage with their reality. For Rafelson this was the ‘human condition’ of a certain type of man, however Kenneth Lonergan’s (he wrote and directed) Lee actually has a reason for his emotional stunting. And that’s where the film took the wrong path for me.

About half way we find that Lee is responsible for his children’s death in an accidental fire. Unfortunately Lonergan uses Albinoni’s Adagio, a saccharine-sweet ersatz piece of classical music, in the staging of the fire and this lurches the film into full blown melodrama that is at odds with the realism of the first part. Was the death of the children needed to explain Lee’s obtuseness or would it have been enough that he’d lost his wife (the incredible Michelle Williams) through his boorish behaviour we see in one of the many flashbacks? Either way, the melodrama (a genre I love) turned me off the film and it took Williams’ all-to-brief appearances to get me involved again; she is an amazing actor.

Lee becomes his nephew’s trustee, after his brother’s death (the motivating incident for Lee to return to his hometown) and I wasn’t convinced by the young man’s (he’s 17) response; this wasn’t Lucas Hedge’s performance but the script’s fault. He – Patrick – obviously yearned for a parent, he wants a relationship with his absent mother but his grief at the loss of his father, to whom he was clearly close, is muted at best.

Lonergan shoots Lee’s brother’s funeral, like the fire scene, ‘at a distance’ with no diegetic sound (sound derived from what we see on screen) with only music accompanying the images; this aestheticism struck me at odds with the New Hollywood style. However, of course, maybe that wasn’t the film Lonergan was making so my criticism should be moot. I suggest he makes a female version of the film, sans the fire incident, that focuses on an emotionally damaged woman (or Sarah Polley could do this – see her great Take This Waltz with Williams). I am bored of male stories; women have them too.


  1. Roy Stafford

    This is worrying – I read the film in almost exactly the same way as you and I wouldn’t disagree with anything you’ve put in your post! I’m still amazed that Michelle Williams could make me cry with just a few minutes of screen time but that two hours of Casey Affleck left me fairly cold. And I also thought the lad’s behaviour was a problem.

    I didn’t make the Rafelson connection, but it makes sense. I think I became pre-occupied with Gloucester as a fishing port (halfway through the film I realised that I visited the town in January 1976). There is something about the culture of the region and the coastal towns in particular that does appear in the film but might have been expanded (I’m thinking of the Catholicism and the hockey game and the fatalism of fishing communities). The one thing that neither of us seem to have mentioned but I have seen elsewhere and heard from friends is that the film is effective in representing issues around loneliness.

  2. shabanah fazal

    I enjoyed this review more than the film…. I agree with almost everything, especially your comment on the music, which delivered fake emotion by dumper truck; the shameless use of Albinoni’s adagio alone should have pushed the film out of Oscar contention. Yes, Michelle Williams was horribly under-used but I believed Casey Affleck’s performance, and found him even more impressive in The Assassination of Jesse James. I agree their short, music-free scene was actually the most moving of the film – and certainly not the very last mawkish flashback, which came out of nowhere like a sledgehammer.

    I watched the film a coincidentally a few days before seeing episode 1 of the new BBC adaptation of EM Forster’s Howards End, and was surprised to discover Kenneth Lonergan had written the screenplay for that, and even more surprised he’d done an excellent job (as a Forster devotee I’m hard to please). With the discipline of adapting a sublimely written classic, and not directing the series himself, what were weaknesses or under-developed but promising elements in Manchester by the Sea here became actual strengths. It’s interesting that in a Radio 4 Front Row interview Lonergan explained that his main reason for hesitating before taking on Howards End was he didn’t sense enough emotion in the two central romantic relationships. Although he seemed not to grasp that Forster is all about deep reservoirs of repressed emotion, thankfully the composer did, creating a restrained but subtly anxious, edgy score. I suspect if Lonergan had taken up the offer to direct as well, he’d have been unable to resist piling on the musical clichés.

    In Manchester by the Sea I found the dialogue between uncle and nephew edgy but full of contrived conflict, whereas in Howards End it’s much more convincing as Lonergan sticks faithfully to Forster’s words, capturing intelligently the energy and subtle conflicts that derive from class and tribal differences. And it’s the cultural setting that to my mind is by far the most interesting aspect of the film: Manchester by the Sea looks like an enclosed, idyllic world of clean clapboard homes, but Lonergan captures well the unspoken tensions and traumas behind those exteriors. The chill settings alone suggest underlying emotion powerfully enough so the loud, intrusive classical score was just not needed. Sometimes, as with Merchant-Ivory, it takes an outsider to distil a culture, and so far in Howards End, I think Lonergan has captured an essential Englishness we ourselves don’t always see. There’s a similarly vivid portrayal of a distinctive culture in Manchester by the Sea, which I would have liked much more of.

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