Manchester by the Sea, BFI London Film Festival, 8th October 2016

October 13, 2016

I once literally ran about a city which is not my home in order to watch the film Ain’t Them Bodies Saints three times in one day. When it comes to film acting, Casey Affleck is the one for me. I love the love he is rightfully getting for his work in Manchester by the Sea, but from my experience Affleck always works from the inside. I don’t think anyone is able to express the internal depth and nuance of a character like Casey. He doesn’t need dialogue or that scene in a film. All he needs is for a character to have something to them in the first place.
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In Manchester by the Sea, wonderful serendipity occurs as an actor who is masterful at conveying internal experience works with a writer and Director creating a film where this is also the focus. The result is life in both its simplicity and complexity. The film takes both the mundane and the utterly tragic and rather than focusing on either, it conveys the impact of life upon people. I found it a very soulful film. With sparse beauty, script, actors and Director coalesce to crush your heart with the characters’ experience.

Manchester by the Sea lets us feel who Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is long before we know why. Affleck is light and understated, doing very little, yet searingly intense at the same time. Lee is a man who has closed himself off from life in every way in order to survive, but all that really separates him from an unspeakable and unfathomable abyss of pain is place. While divulging no plot, Manchester by the Sea focuses on a lead who is (understandably) unable to overcome an event that happened in his past. He has never addressed this event in any way and the only way he has been able to continue to exist following it is to remove himself from the place… and almost from existence entirely.

The film is aptly titled, for place is so important to it. Have you ever felt like you weren’t sure if you’d ever be able to live in or visit some place ever again because it held such memories? I know I have. Unlike Lee, the things that made me feel that way were not insurmountable. But I remember how it felt. Every second back in Manchester by the Sea is threatening: pulling forth memories, and Kenneth Lonergan offers no get-out clause. You crave some kind of resolution for Lee, or at least the vaguest possibility of hope, but such is never offered. For Lee, to go through a barrier to address his past would be self-immolation. mbts3

Sounding miserable? Like life, Manchester by the Sea contains much humour, too. Often it is laugh out loud funny. The absurdity and awkwardness of life in both mundane and tragic times is funny. The characters are often funny. I loved the band practices so much! There’s a warmth of humour to the film and to family interactions between Lee and his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges: so convincing and sharing interesting traits with his Uncle) which I hope everybody has experienced at some time in life with their own family. The chemistry between Affleck and Hedges is perfect and gives so much to the film and I look forward to seeing Lucas Hedges in many films in the future for he’s wonderful here.

At a sad time in my life, I remember wondering how any human made it to old age. So many memories people must have, I thought. How did people bear even more of them? Manchester by the Sea uses flashbacks which eventually reveal what we’ve felt the impact of from the start of the film. You also know there is something to reveal since you see past and present are different. These moments from the past flood in suddenly. They are surely Lee’s memories, coming to him randomly but consistently, as memories do, forcing him involuntarily to remember and so to feel everything he has had to shut himself off from. He cannot afford to allow that, but at the same time he has responsibility and while Lee has closed off all possibilities for the future for himself, perhaps his brother knew that responsibility towards a person Lee will always be connected to is at least one reason for him to continue to exist.

Manchester by the Sea itself spends most of the film in the grip of Winter. Streets are lined with walls of snow and ice, which you feel after a while might be a permanent feature and may never melt. It seems stuck in a time which seems endless and inescapable. But while Spring comes for Manchester by the Sea, for Lee there is no release. Yet, there is another side to the place: a wild sea, and seabirds overhead. Birds always feel free and the life that takes place on the sea also is where there feels the vaguest sense of hope. Lee smiles here once: the first he’s smiled in present time that we’ve seen and so powerful because of the fact.

I personally felt Manchester by the Sea captured depression. A depression prompted by guilt and a persistent grief turned to melancholia, which will never be overcome. Lee has moments when a desire for self-destruction bursts out: violence the only way he is able to articulate his pain, but most of the time he just accepts a semi-existence, aware that this is all there will ever be for him. I also can’t stop thinking about the start of the film where Lee speaks to his nephew, jesting about something along the lines of being the one who has all the answers; who knows the map; who understands it all and knows how to survive. But the thing is, life is wild and humans are fallible. There is no map. There’s more to this, but I think it gives away more than I ought to speak of it if you haven’t seen it!

Manchester by the Sea gets right down to the depths of folk and the broken soul of Lee really destroyed me. I personally loved how this film, so focused on the deepest aspects of experience was scored with so much vocal music (and a fair bit of strings to boot) for what more articulates the soul than this? I also found the purity of the score a perfect match for the rawness and purity of pain. mbts2

Talking about raw, Lee is not the only character who is broken here. Patrick shows surprising resilience given what his character experiences, but Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife, Randi has a world of pain of her own which she conveys powerfully in relatively few scenes which span a decade in Randi’s life.

Manchester by the Sea is a film that I’d be surprised if you could easily get out of your head because it gets down to the difficult depths of what life does to us and how we can undo our own lives and it offers no map out. There are films that can have you sobbing but five minutes after they’re over you’re fine again. This one though lingers days after the credits. It takes its time to break you down (given that the subject matter isn’t happy from the start, it is some time before you’ll need a hanky!) but once it gets going, the tiniest of things kept making me shake with sobs. At the same time, as well as revealing a pain that feels physical even as a mere viewer, Manchester by the Sea gets to this place with warmth and humour and even to its most broken inhabitant, family is what matters.

Imagine how many Lee’s there must be out there. How many people are, for whatever reason, irrevocably damaged? How many people have had to limit who they are? How many people are merely existing? Manchester by the Sea made me want to fix everything and everyone so it was all OK. It made me feel afraid for the future. It felt more like life than art in its conclusion. Though tragic, the film, I felt, is not a tragedy: it doesn’t offer either positive resolution or cathartic release. It just is. It is why it feels almost unbearable at times. But, like life, people endure and it continues, its hurdles never easing, yet hope never completely vanishing either.

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One Response to “Manchester by the Sea, BFI London Film Festival, 8th October 2016”

  1. […] I’ve written more about this, here: My Manchester By The Sea ramble. […]

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