Sunday, February 05, 2017

We Who Live By The Sea

Forget La La Land. The best film of this year, which ought to clean up at the 89th Academy Awards three weeks today, is Manchester by the Sea (Figure 102.1), directed by Kenneth Lonergan.

Figure 102.1: Six Academy Award nominations for ‘Manchester’

Copyright © 2016 Amazon Studios

The main character is Lee Chandler, played by Casey Affleck, a dogsbody janitor who ekes out an anonymous living in a drab Boston suburb. On hearing that his brother is seriously ill, Lee returns to his hometown – Manchester, Massachusetts – but his brother dies just before he arrives.

Lee is stunned to learn that he has been given custody of his brother’s 16-year-old son. The rest of the film centres on this unscripted new relationship which, despite profound mutual affection, neither of them finds ideal. As the odd couple stumble through the tedious post-mortem drag of funeral arrangements and financial bureaucracy, it becomes clear (with a deafening bang) why Lee had left Manchester in the first place. It is a shock that I cannot bring myself to dwell on for long enough even to write a paragraph.

Only when the viewer learns of this unspeakable tragedy can he comprehend Lee’s reticent and impenetrable persona. His emotions very rarely surface (Figure 102.2). This is not because they do not exist, but rather that Lee is fighting a perpetual battle in his own head to keep them beneath. This is how he survives. His only unscripted outbursts come when he gets drunk. If they came out with his mind fully alert, the pain would return and floor him more brutally than could any bunch of rough-ass brawlers in a bar.

Figure 102.2: Casey Affleck as ‘Lee’

Copyright © 2017 NYREV Inc.

Affleck’s portrayal is almost unbelievably thoughtful. Every inconvenience and awkward encounter – and there are plenty – is met by the attitude, ‘OK, emotions behind bars, and here we go again.’ It is like watching a weary old man lock a couple of fierce dogs in a back room before he dare open his front door to a visitor. With everyone he is forced to confront, the same strategy plays out: he opens the door but allows no one in. Hospital doctors, funeral directors, old friends, and flirty women who all but throw themselves at him, are met with empty eyes and an enigma writ large. His self-control is almost painful to watch.

When Lee eventually comes face-to-face with his (equally traumatized) ex-wife, he responds to her tears by insisting, ‘There’s nothing there.’ I suspected that really there was, but he convinces himself that his feelings are extinct rather than merely dormant. He knows that an honest eruption might well finish him off.

The final scene is captured with immense sympathy. As his nephew steers the family boat off the Manchester coast, Lee is perched at the back, gazing in silence upon his beloved seascape. He appreciates that this is as good, and as peaceful, as it will ever get, so he makes the best of it.

In a 21st-century cinematic world of mindless sci-fi and deus-ex-machina fantasy, drama replaced by melodrama, and emotional incontinence as a given, Manchester by the Sea is a film of understatement and understanding (Figure 102.3), made all the more poignant by the knowledge that there are countless Lee Chandlers out there, making their way in the world with almost every facet hidden from sight.

Figure 102.3: Film of the year

Copyright © 2017 Light Cinemas

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

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