20 January – 02 February 2017, DCA
Place names ending in “by the sea” likely evoke memories in most of both the exciting promise of such a holiday destination, and/or the disappointment associated with the reality of rain and family company. Manchester by the Sea explores the precise turmoil in returning to the location of a troubled past and the pain involved when it is the thread of family that reels you back to a place and people left behind.
The film opens with Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) and his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) out on their beloved but battered fishing boat as Lee threatens with his young nephew Patrick of the sharks lurking below. The blue skies of the small and distant coastal town are counterpointed with the slight malaise of the choppy waters which engulf half the frame as an all too peaceful choral number imbues the flashback with a resonant foreboding. The boat, too, embodies a tension between joy and disquiet; being named “Ann-Marie” after the Chandler’s mother, whose only appearance in the film is a distressed reaction to Joe’s diagnosis with a terminal heart condition, it suggests the silent burden of unspoken obligations to family.
The aura of this bygone day is swiftly displaced as we return to the present in snowy Boston. Following a day in the life of Lee, we learn his disposition has darkened somewhat. As if serving a self-imposed punishment, he works as a surly handyman, reconciled to his daily tasks of unblocking toilets and strained conversations with clients. The instability of his character gradually unfolds as he verbally abuses a client and then starts a fight in a pub without provocation (which becomes a slightly overused motif). The empty, amused stare with which he bores through those he converses with is genuinely chilling, conveying his complete disconnection with those around him. This is his existence- succinctly captured in his metaphorical cramming of a skip- until his brother’s sudden passing draws him home. The sterile bureaucracy of death is depicted flatly, reduced to the emotionless completion of a list of papers to be signed- one of which brings the unwelcome news of his guardianship for the now adolescent Patrick.
It is unsurprising Affleck has drawn award nominations for his performance. Its unflinching conviction, though slightly overwrought, provides a stark example of living with pasts that never fade. Yet this may be more honestly attributed to writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s management of the story, spending more time on the quiet and minor moments and, crucially, not attempting to heal or save the character over the course of the film. Lee and Patrick’s murmured discomfort about Joe being frozen till warmer weather will permit his burial suddenly erupts in a panic attack provoked by frozen meat, reminding how much emotional tension is harboured and hidden in grief. Indeed, this is a film that clearly entrusts the script to carefully unfold the themes; its attack is in the accumulation of delicately layered memories and absorbing interactions between Lee and Patrick, who is played superbly by Lucas Hedges. Their relationship is at once dependant and awkward; the sole glimmer of warmth is withheld until the final scene when Lee cracks a smile on the boat Patrick has restored and is steering with his girlfriend.
The film owes much of its merit to its meticulous organisation. The unfolding of the characters’ prior lives and events through flashback is well paced; never jarring or out of place, they manage to create a fluid temporality with the present that serves the plot and naturalness of character equally. The entrance and exit to these are delicately wrapped in mirror images. In the case of the most affecting incident- the tragic fire that ended Lee’s former family life- the camera loses focus on the window view from which Lee gazes into the lawyer’s office as he first learns of his inherited guardianship of Patrick. The small, distant town cornered by water is an inexorable part of his life and the return to a place so ingrained with his past and grief signals his failure to reconcile himself with his guilt and pain.