Following the death of his brother, a handy man residing in Boston must return to his hometown to oversee arrangements for the funeral, as well as the aftercare of his nephew. Lee is insular and isolated, highlighted through the crisp white snow we see him shovelling in the film’s opening scenes. He is often wrapped up in heavy layers of clothing to protect him from the harsh elements. He speaks his mind to the rude occupants of the apartments he services, drinks alone in dingy bars looking for fights and resides in one beige room below the flats he tends to. Returning to Manchester is painful for Lee, with shocked faces and whispers about his past following him wherever he goes. Manchester by the Sea jumps back and forth between memories and reality, all eventually leading, rather formulaically, to the tragedy that has left Lee broken man. When faced with the prospect of having to become guardian to a fatherless teen, tensions rise and fall between Lee and his nephew Patrick as both characters try to comprehend and process their own and each other’s suffering. With Lee unable to face the painful endeavour of remaining in Manchester and Patrick furious at the prospect of having to leave his school and friends to move to Boston, both men come to verbal blows, all amidst the frustrating finer details one must think about when planning a funeral for a loved one. Manchester by the Sea is a painful tale of remorse, regret and rebirth, with Casey Affleck leading the way in an impressively raw performance.
Sadly, the film outstays its welcome. By giving a huge majority of the screen time to the undeniable talents of Affleck, it ultimately undervalues the powerful abilities of Michelle Williams and Lucas Hedges. Affleck’s sombre protagonist is silent – driven by Affleck’s internal performance. With so much hidden beneath the surface, there is not enough to engage the audience. In arguably the film’s greatest scene, Patrick experiences a panic attack. In the second best, Lee’s ex-wife opens up to him in an emotional few minutes fuelled by Michelle Williams’ mesmerising capabilities. Both actors are crying out to be more forcefully utilised but instead only make up about 25% of the story. I could sit and watch Casey Affleck all day, just not in this role. Lee is mysterious and confusing but after 90 minutes you’re tired of trying to work him out. Manchester by the Sea loses its way in the second half, coming to an anti-climatic and rushed ending. There is no real pay off for sitting through what is more or less just an Oscar portfolio piece for Affleck. A conventional and morose drama about the ghosts of the past, Manchester by the Sea has several striking moments but doesn’t come together as a whole piece. As a footnote, I’m all for flawed protagonists but when your characters are litterers, cheaters, irresponsible parents and/or using their mobile phone whilst driving, its really hard to root for them wholeheartedly – especially when you have to spend an obnoxiously long 137 minutes with them.
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